Former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa Pali Lehohla. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi
Former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa Pali Lehohla. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

OPINION: Corruption in SA is like peeling an onion, each layer brings a tear to the eye

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 16, 2020

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By Pali Lehohla

JOHANNESBURG - When it comes to the legacy and scandal of corruption, South Africa is like an onion. With each layer that is peeled away, a chemical is emitted, causing one to cry.

Perhaps the genesis of the problem was well summed up by a checkmate statement by the then minister of Social Development and chairperson of the ANC Women’s League, Bathabile Dlamini, when she said “all of us have smallanyana skeletons”.

Steve Friedman makes a revealing distinction between the transformative content and power of morality versus the hollowness of moralising.

Morality, he argues, confronts each one of us and creates a compelling platform for finding solutions. Moralising does not necessarily provide a solution.

Friedman says: “If you care about a problem you discuss it. If you don’t, you moralise about it. Which tells us much about South Africa’s national debate.”

This, I surmise, answers the question why we have graduated from one smallanyana skeleton to a slightly bigger one since 2009.

Men and women of the cloth have at every step confronted this moral decay. For almost a decade, they held a moral mirror to the politicians, who instead continued to moralise and express dismay.

The latest push to halt corruption by President Cyril Ramaphosa has been backed by the South African Council of Churches (Sacc).

However, the Sacc have not left this to Ramaphosa’s word, but have pressed on with solutions that mobilise society to empathise with the challenge and take the necessary and sustained action against this malaise.

Being listed and published is not enough. Going through the ANC integrity committee is not enough. The full might of the law is the only condition that translates action into effective empathy.

The Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture this month reminded us of our obligations and what actions should be taken against global racism, as Reverend Al Sharpton narrated how this 400-year project is no accident and the crucial lessons that can be drawn from what Steve Biko did about it.

The morality vs moralising dilemma was brought into sharp relief by Professor Barney Pityana, Professor Mamphela Ramphele and Ambassador Thenjiwe Mtintso on how Biko confronted the morality praxis.

What we should not moralise about, therefore, is the decay in infrastructure, as we see rail plundered in broad day light in our main cities, resulting in escalating transport costs, particularly for poor families.

What we should not moralise about is why Statstics SA seasonally adjusted and annualised the quarter on quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate. After all, this has been the headline standard by which GDP has been reported on by StatsSA following international standards.

What we should be concerned about is the fidelity of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which the government and National Treasury have failed to finance for going on 10 years.

What we should not moralise on is yet another measure of poverty, which both Treasury and the government have failed to finance for seven years.

Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, how will these crucial indicators be measured? In the middle of an ocean, we need a compass to determine the direction and pace at which we move to our destination.

Amid all this is the contestation between trade unions and the government about salary adjustments. The adjustment is based on CPI – a measure which the Statistician General Risenga Maluleke may find difficult to defend because of neglect.

Ivan Fellegi, the chief statistician Emeritus of Canada, has a confirmatory advice against moralising. He says, “Whenever I said that we need to do something, I never preached about it because that is useless. Exhortation doesn’t get you anywhere ...one has to dream up techniques or tools or prods that make people behave the way you hope they would behave.”

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him at www.pie.org.za or @palilj01

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