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Paradise Plundered

Paradise Plundered

Paradise Plundered

When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

Frédéric Bastiat

Monsieur Bastiat was a French economist and writer who was born over 200 years ago. That’s a little depressing when you think about it. Because when you read the above quote and recognise how 100% applicable it is to South Africa in 2024, you’re struck with the inescapable realisation that nothing has actually changed.

Despite incredible advances in so many areas of life – from medicine to technology, women’s rights to levels of education – one fact remains constant: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Ironically, this famous saying also dates back to the 1800s, penned in a letter by Lord Acton to Bishop Creighton. He went on to say, “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”

It has to be said that an obvious exception to this is our beloved former President Nelson Mandela. One of the many wonderful stories people tell about Madiba is that he once called his staff back to the hotel where they had been staying to return items they had taken from their rooms. He told them no one would leave until everything had been put back where it belonged.

I know I’m not the only one who often, and somewhat wistfully, wonders how different our country might be today if Mr Mandela were still with us, still in power, and still inspiring us all with his wisdom, humility and legendary leadership.

Sadly, we have to push this kind of wishful thinking aside. We are faced with the reality that is South Africa today, which makes me wonder a very different question:

Considering the rampant corruption at local, regional and national level, and examining the lamentable legacy of powerful people throughout history, is this it? Is there an inevitability about corrupt leadership and, if so, is our collective coping mechanism to simply accept this all-pervasive culture of impunity because, in the words of the more modern band, the Manic Street Preachers, “resistance is futile?”

In South Africa at least, the answer feels like a hard yes.

Regular readers of my articles will be more than familiar with the countless examples I’ve given where South Africa’s corporate and political leaders have successfully evaded any kind of prosecution or conviction for their corrupt behaviour.

And how anyone who dares shine a light on specific individuals or incidents is either forced to leave the country in fear of their lives (such as former Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter) or tragically assassinated before they had the chance to do so (like Babita Deokaran, a whistle-blower on the rampant tender fraud within the Gauteng Department of Health).

Of course, there are many, many others, but these high-profile examples act as a powerful deterrent for those who might otherwise be tempted to come forward with their stories.

Even internationally-acclaimed initiatives like the Zondo Commission don’t seem to have made a discernible dent in the bulletproof vests of South Africa’s corrupt.

It seems incredible to me that despite all the revelations revealed by the Commission, and the countless examples of blatantly corrupt practices bravely put forward by concerned individuals, nothing gets done. No one is prosecuted. No one is held accountable.

Not that this any fault of the Commission itself, I hasten to add. In the same way a turkey is unlikely to vote for Christmas, those implicated by the enquiry are not going to be in any great hurry to hold up their hands and say, “Mea culpa.”

The purveyors of high-level corruption and fraud in South Africa are simply far too comfortable living under the protection of political patronage to ever do anything to jeopardise their position.

As an article in the Mail & Guardian states, “The patronage system embedded in our state governance and ruling party structures ensures that political actors have a significant level of control over awarding major contracts. This is why so many professional firms like Bain and Bosasa have tried — and succeeded — to establish close ties to ANC politicians and senior state-owned enterprise officials, and why so many professional organisations such as the SAP did not hesitate to pay large commissions to politically-connected middlemen. This is how the game is played, and most reforms will do little to change these fundamental incentives.”

The newspaper is not alone in its thinking. Last year, at the first anniversary of the handover of the commission’s report to President Cyril Ramaphosa, Chief Justice Raymond Zondo replied, when asked if he felt the capture of our government had put our very democracy at risk, “An unequivocal yes. I’ve seen nothing that has changed.”

He went on to say that it was difficult for Parliament to be an authentic site of accountability until electoral reforms were passed to make political leaders accountable to their constituents and not only to party leaders.

Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke later supported this, saying, “It’s clear that service delivery failures are happening because of failures in behaviour – and the behaviour of institutions flows entirely from the prevailing culture.”

And yet I wonder if even radical changes to that culture will be enough. Time and time again, when local and national elections come round, nothing of significance changes. The trees continue to vote for the axe, simply because it has a wooden handle.

And yet, if I force myself to think positively, 2024 is an election year. It will be interesting to see if this time, the results finally reflect the South African public’s growing lack of trust in the people who once promised to serve them.

I firmly believe that this is our only real hope – if South Africans use the vote they fought so long and hard for to bring about meaningful change in their lives, and in the future of our country.

Of course, it isn’t just politicians who are at fault. You only have to cast your mind back to companies such as Steinhoff, Tongaat Hulett and EOH, to name a few, to realise that corruption is rife in the private sector, too.

As Auditor-General Maluleke said, although corruption is often thought of as emanating from the public sector, prominent businesses are also deeply implicit in State capture, and there are multiple role-players in multiple institutions.

So, to return to my original question, is this it? Has the corruption juggernaut become too big, and is it moving too fast, to stop?

I don’t believe so, but slamming on the brakes is not going to be easy.

National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council chairperson and councillor Professor Firoz Cachalia

believes that “Corruption has become institutionalised and is getting systematic. When it reaches that point, law enforcement after the fact remains important but not sufficient.”

Both the private and public sectors need to be robust, unwavering and, most importantly, proactive in their fight against corruption. This means continually revisiting and revising audit strategies, using sophisticated fraud data analytics, investing in ongoing staff training, and collaborating with other institutions in the accountability ecosystem.

Echoing Cachalia’s sentiments, President Ramaphosa has stated that “the fight against corruption is not only for the police, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority, or our courts. It’s a societal fight. It is not only for the President . . . the state capture commission would most probably never have been appointed had the people of South Africa not stood up and said enough is enough.”

Cachalia went on to say, “We are fighting to preserve our constitutional order. We are fighting to defend our democratic freedoms. We are fighting for the country’s hopes and dreams. So, let anti-corruption be prioritised as part of our national agenda – but that depends on society’s active participation.”