What is it about public life in South Africa, and about those who occupy elite positions in particular, that leads to such endemic corruption? South Africans are all too aware of the depth and reach of corruption in our society. the whole of President Zuma’s term of office has been overshadowed by allegations of one kind of crookery or another, from the 783 charges of fraud and corruption in his dealings with Schabir Shaik in the 1990s, to the nkandla mess, to the various scandals linked to the Gupta family. numerous cabinet ministers have also been accused of involvement in suspicious activities. A few, like Dina Pule and Sicelo Shiceka, were fired after investigations showed how they had misused public funds for private benefit, but most of them have simply shrugged off the allegations.
Among the parastatal companies, such as eskom, SAA, the SAbC, PetroSA and the like, corruption also seems to be endemic. Hearings currently under way in Parliament are beginning to confirm how deep the rot is at the SAbC, and it will hopefully not be too long before a similar probe is held into the way Dudu myeni has been running—and ruining—South African Airways. Sometimes, the corruption is so pathetic as to be almost cute. When the head of the SA Weather Service passed her mbA exams, a friend who happened to be a senior staff member at the Service bought her a r3 800 designer handbag as a congratulatory gift. the staff member used her personal credit card, but then claimed the money back from the Service and was duly reimbursed. She probably didn’t even realise that this was improper; fortunately, staff in the finance section did, and reported the matter to the Public Protector.
At the other end of the scale, we are all waiting nervously to see what happens with eskom’s determined attempt to commit the country to its biggest ever expenditure on a single project—the programme to build up to six nuclear reactors. Virtually no independent energy analysts believe that the country needs this investment, and even those who generally favour nuclear power agree that it is simply unaffordable. the conclusion that some form of corruption is afoot is inescapable, and was certainly underlined by the Public Protector’s revelations of regular contact between the Gupta family and the eskom chief executive, brian molefe, and by mr molefe’s subsequent, and sudden, resignation. many answers to our question have been put forward. for example, the ‘Zuma scenario’: you devote your life to the struggle, spend decades in jail and exile, and then, relatively late in life, you find yourself facing huge expectations from family and associates who see you as their meal-ticket. you also find yourself in a position of influence and power, with any number of sharp operators ready to make you rich in return for access to state resources, contracts, tenders, etc.
Then there is the “i didn’t struggle in order to be poor” defence. this rationalises bribery, nepotism, cronyism and sometimes just downright theft on the basis that it is “my turn now”. for too long, wealth was the preserve of one section of society; now it is time to spread it out, preferably starting with me and my circle. there is also the question of insecure people and their need for status and ostentation. you may realise that you are not really qualified for the job that you have been given (or ‘deployed’ to) or that you lack the competence or experience to succeed in it. How do you hide these feelings, and perhaps even convince yourself that you are actually a success? Surround yourself with the trappings of those whom you regard as role models: the big office, the expensive cars, the overseas trips, and—to confirm your importance—the ViP bodyguards. if you have to bend the rules to pay for all these things, so be it. it is probably also the case that the necessary drive, ambition, and political connectedness to get ahead in public life often come in a package with greed, self-centredness and vanity. it is not for nothing that politicians are regarded all over the world as among the least trustworthy of people. this leads to my final answer to the question. What is it about South Africa’s public life, and those who occupy its heights, that leads to such levels of corruption? in reality, nothing at all. i could fill a whole issue of Worldwide with examples from all around the world, from the relatively minor (the new Zealand minister who used an official overseas trip to promote dairy products made by her husband’s firm) to the truly evil (two US judges who invested in a private prison and then sent juveniles to jail there instead of giving them the usual non-custodial sentences). instead, just type the name of any country you like, followed by the words ‘political corruption’, into your Google search bar, and see what comes up. it’s not pretty, but at least as a South African you won’t feel so alone.