When South Africa became democratic and political equality was adopted, little was done for economic equality. That mainly benefitted the already powerful whites. Economic liberalisation coupled with inequality and capitalist competition have engendered massive corruption.
In conjunction with the passing of one of the greatest legends in our time, Nelson Mandela, South Africa gained some renewed attention. In general, the news stories regarding the country were negative and centred around widespread corruption associate with the government led by African National Congress. These reports are true, but they are far from complete. The corruption within the political elite stands in direct relation to the bribes and threats from the economic elite. It is absolutely crucial to complete the picture on corruption, not only to reach a greater truth, but also to mitigate racism and ideological delusions.
When media focus on corruption in South Africa, the flashlight is usually on the government. Although never really referred to, it is common knowledge that this government is dominated by black South Africans. This fact is likely to spark or reproduce negative sentiments about African leaders. In doing so, the next step is not far away, which is to spark or reproduce the delusion that Africans cannot lead themselves. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon prejudice around the world. People who carry such notions do not usually take the necessary effort to find out more. Africa's history consists of everything from well-functioning democratic to authoritarian and exploitative societies, just like the history of other regions of the world (see for instance this paper).
It is more about the Swedish expression "tillfället gör tjuven" - the opportunity creates the thief. This is especially true when the power imbalances are extreme. When South Africa became democratic and political equality was adopted, little was done for economic equality. And the economic freedom that was broadened mainly benefitted the already powerful, mainly white South Africans. This is a regular outcome of economic liberalisations coupled with inequality and capitalist competition. The relatively more powerful positions are utilised to further enhance power and wealth. The methods include bribing and making threats so to influence and co-opt the political elite. By doing so, corporations gain public procurements, low taxes, low minimum wages for their workers, and low requirements in terms of work environments, environmental standards, etc. In this context, we should not forget the intensified role played by transnational companies after 1994. A role that has not meant mitigating corruption; quite the contrary. Such processes are central in understanding why South Africa is so corrupt and basically as unequal today as during apartheid.
It is possible to capture today's mind-boggling inequality by looking at extremes. According to Forbes Magazine, South Africa has 14 dollar-billionaires today, out of which only one is black. Their wealth amounts to about $30 billions. In comparison, according to World Bank data, one-third of the population lives on about $11 billions, annually (between $1.25 - $2.5 per day in purchasing power parity). This means a handful of individuals possess almost three times more than what 16 million people live on during a year. Although not an exact science, this comparison illustrates one of the major problems in South Africa today. And it goes without saying that these billionaires and other wealthy individuals (the economic elite) have much more leverage and influence than people in general.
Thus, the corruption in South Africa, or anywhere actually, is not about people from different continents, but rather about people in general. It is about humanity's extensive dichotomy between good and evil, between elevation and oppression.
I would like to draw attention to another important danger of the single narrative on corruption. When stories on corruption focus solely on politicians, there is a greater risk to spark or reproduce delusions regarding the state as an institution. To deselect the role of corporations might be an ideological choice of the narrator or journalist, consciously or subconsciously. It should not be about the private sector or the public sector, but about their actions and the associated consequences for the people at large. Throughout the world, the most frequently occurring and the greatest corruption cases are transactions between the political and economic elite.
The solution is emancipation: more enlightenment, education, more democracy, equality, and accountability, all of which require a significant redistribution of resources and opportunities. South Africans know this. Despite hardship, brutality and imminent danger many of them struggle onwards and occasionally succeed in improving livelihoods. But corruption is a grotesque barrier. The least we can do is to report these realities as representative as possible.
* Deniz Kellecioglu is an international economist. Get him on Twitter: @denizkelleciogl