Umsebenzi Online (Johannesburg)

26 July 2012

South Africa: The Unholy Trinity - the Roots of Corruption in Our Society

Photo: iMaverick Graphic
The number of politicians murdered in the past five years has escalated, especially between 2010 and 2012.

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The scourge of corruption in South Africa has tightened its grip on our society over the past decade, threatening our democratic achievements, eroding the capacity of the state to advance serious socio-economic transformation, and often undermining the solidarity culture of our broad movement.

The SACP was amongst the first formations to actively launch a mass campaign against corruption - A Red Card Against Corruption. Tragically, there are already martyrs in the struggle against this corrosive evil - among them Mpumalanga SACP cadre, Radioman Ntshangase, and Rustenburg municipal councilor and former NUMSA shopsteward, Moss Phakoe. Both were gunned down for their courageous stands against corruption.

But what lies behind this terrible contagion?

Various explanations are advanced in the South African public debate.

Often it is reduced to bad individual behavior calling for moral condemnation - a "few bad apples", of whom "an example" must be made.

Clearly this is not entirely wrong - those involved in corruption must be dealt with, regardless of who they are, regardless of their political affiliations. In fact, we should expect and demand a higher level of conduct from those who are members of our broad democratic movement and especially from those in public service.

But, sadly, we are dealing with something much more systemic than simply a "few bad apples". In an attempt to find a more generalized explanation for corruption we sometimes encounter syndicalist left-wingers unwittingly echoing "free market" right-wingers in their exaggerated suspicion of the state (or at least the democratic state in a capitalist society) defining it as inherently and in its totality "corrupt". "Power corrupts", we are frequently told - often by an oligopolistic commercial media that likes to conceal its own massive market power.

The idea that politicians and the state are, more or less by definition, corrupt is liable to undermine our determination to use state power (along with social activism) to deal decisively with corruption. It also helps to obscure the fact that where corruption occurs in the public sector there is, invariably, a private sector corrupter, a Glenn Agliotti or a Brett Kebble. For every black property tycoon working in collusion with senior public servants to lease buildings at hugely inflated prices to government there is typically a big bank. The bank might well not literally be breaking the law, but its own senior staff involved in the lease will know exactly what is going on. They will quietly earn inflated bonuses for bringing in business, while the bank chairman publicly condemns the corruption of the new "extraordinary breed of politicians."

Other explanations for corruption in our society belong to the anti-majoritarian pseudo-liberal current of thought. Corruption is blamed on some supposed generalized tendencies within post-independence, Third World liberation movements, for instance. Other explanations border on racial stereotyping, on the supposed propensities of the "new elite" (as if the old elite were not often deeply complicit in past and present corruption).

As it happens, the "new elite" is the key focus of two recent thoughtful interventions by Professor Njabulo Ndebele and cde Joel Netshitenzhe.

Writing in the City Press ("A meditation on corruption", 22 January 2012), Ndebele argues that the "new elite", since being installed in power in the post-1994 reality, has been tugged between competing imperatives - individual redress versus substantial social development, redistribution versus systemic transformation. Although he doesn't quite say this, Ndebele correctly implies that the competing logics of these very different imperatives were often blurred in language as if they were one and the same thing. "Transformation", for instance, came to mean not the radical transformation of the systemic features of apartheid-colonialism, but a touch of racial representivity within essentially the same unchanged realities - the same boardrooms, the same wealthy suburbs, the same elite golf clubs.

Ndebele argues that the "new elite" was increasingly torn between its own "personal material needs...shaped by historical deprivation" on the one hand, and the "social commitment that once gave meaning to the struggle for liberation" on the other. In Ndebele's view, "access to state wealth" meant that relatively quickly individual redress became individual entitlement and these values then trumped social transformation, side-lining it into little more than a "niggling ethical burden".

Writing in ANC Today ("Competing identities of a national liberation movement and the challenges of incumbency", 15 June 2012) Cde Joel Netshitenzhe follows a similar trajectory to explain corruption. He invokes concepts like the "sins of incumbency" and the problem of "growing social distance" between the new political elite and its mass base. Like Ndebele, he analyses the roots of corruption in the psycho-sociological challenges confronting an "emerging middle class" without historical assets to support large extended families, leading it to take on excessive debt. "Having dipped their toes in that lifestyle, but with no historical assets as are available to the white middle and upper strata, some then try to acquire the resources by hook or crook."

There are certainly strong elements of readily recognizable truth in both Ndebele and Netshitenzhe's descriptions. But that is also part of the problem - they tend to remain descriptions, and somewhat one-sided descriptions at that. As a result they are also unable to offer serious anti-corruption programmatic interventions, beyond the very important but limited pedagogical appeal for a change in moral values.

In the public discussion in SA about corruption insufficient attention has been paid to class struggles within our movement, and between our movement and incumbent capital, over the direction of our post-1994 democracy. In particular, there is a failure to recognize that the established white bourgeoisie did not stand idly by in the face of the new, post-1994 political reality. They continued to pursue the agenda of late-apartheid, namely to build a relatively substantial "buffer" black middle strata. This was already the agenda of big capital in the early 1990s negotiations period, for instance. It was no longer a question of preventing the ANC coming to power, but rather to ensure that the ANC that came into power would be hegemonised by the "doves", the "sensible moderates" who would distance themselves from the dangerous "radical populists" and their volatile "mass base".

Much has been made in certain anti-alliance quarters about the woeful consequences of "cadre deployment" - as if (as ANC secretary general, cde Gwede Mantashe likes to point out) the corrupt promotion of someone ill-suited and unqualified for a position on the grounds that they happen to be a political associate was "cadre deployment". But in all of this debate very little has ever been said about the systematic "cadre development and deployment" that key circles of big capital (both domestic and international) implemented in the immediate pre- and post-1994 period. How many key ANC-aligned individuals, for instance, were quietly taken out for internships in arch neo-liberal corporations in the United States, like Goldman Sachs? (Goldman Sachs has recently been deeply discredited, by the way, for its role in provoking and in profiteering from the Greek debt crisis.) Those who "benefited" from this neo-liberal cadre development were then deployed back into strategic positions in government. If I am not mistaken, at least two recent Treasury DGs were graduates of the Goldman Sachs cadre school.

The "social" (and of course ideological and moral) "distance" that cde Netshitenzhe evokes might not have been a conspiracy, but it was certainly part of a deliberate strategy. It was not just an inevitable psycho-sociological syndrome related to historical deprivation, to large extended families, and to the newfound privileges of incumbency.

By the mid-1990s, a key strategy for engineering "social distance" and for consolidating a buffer black elite stratum was the policy of "black economic empowerment". This amounted to a social pact between elements within the new political elite and established big capital. From the side of established big capital it represented in many respects a re-run of how mining and banking capital had once accommodated itself to the 1948 Afrikaner nationalist political victory. But it was also a strategy that was embraced and actively developed by a dominant tendency within the ANC and government (what the SACP has described as the "1996 class project"). For this revisionist tendency within the ANC and government, the creation of a new BEE elite was seen as an active counter-balance to the influence of the SACP, COSATU and the ANC's own township and rural mass base. The strategy found active ideological expression in key ANC documents, including the vulgarization of the concept of "revolutionary motive forces" - with the argument being advanced that all forces that "stood to gain" from the national democratic revolution "were motive forces". This amounted to a local version of the free market "invisible hand" credo that the selfish pursuit of individual satisfaction inevitably leads to the greater good of all.

The first wave of BEE advancements were not necessarily all corrupt (although many questions still surround key early BEE-related moves - notably the arms deal). But the canonization of "BEE" as a central programme of government brought into play a dangerous nexus between political office, personal enrichment, and established capital. The narratives of Ndebele and Netshitenzhe tend to leave out the critical last component of this corrosive, unholy trinity. Let me underline that I am not evoking established capital in order to deflect attention from the culpabilities of the other two components - those who brazenly declared that they "hadn't struggled to be poor".

However, unless we grasp the triadic nexus, this unholy trinity, we will not begin to understand the systemic roots of corruption in our society.

Nor will we be able to develop an effective multi-pronged counter-strategy. For instance, the "social distance" that cde Netshitenzhe and others invoke is not just a metaphor - in South Africa, in which we have not transformed apartheid colonial spatial injustices, social distance is also a yawning geographical reality. For those familiar with the childrens' board-game, our untransformed social reality can easily pitch the new middle strata into a political game of snakes and ladders, in which the snakes and the ladders are exaggeratedly long. If you land on the right square, by securing a regional chairpersonship in the ANC for instance, you might suddenly find yourself on a heady upward ascension. But if you lose your footing, you are liable to fall rapidly down a very long snake, back to zero and abject poverty.

This heady, insecure world of rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags opens up enormous possibilities for strategic (including corrupting) leverage over the new democratic state and over our own alliance formations by those who are well-established and well-resourced. The struggle against corruption and the material conditions that foster it has, therefore, to be a struggle for a much more egalitarian society. We have literally to abolish, amongst many things, the social distance engraved in our persisting apartheid spatial patterns through the accelerated planning and implementation of mixed-used, mixed-income settlement patterns. But this means taking head-on the vested interests of the established capitalist class (the value of their residential properties, for instance), and the venal interests of a comprador elite that has been promoted as a buffer against serious transformation.

Asikhulume!

Jeremy Cronin is SACP 1st Deputy General Secretary.

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