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Using the poor to protect the corrupt

Popular decision: Supporters of ANC leader Jacob Zuma celebrate the news in 2009 that prosecutors have dropped corruption charges against him. The National Prosecutions Authority said the case had been manipulated for political reasons and cleared the way for Zuma to become the president without the looming threat of a trial. Picture: AP

Popular decision: Supporters of ANC leader Jacob Zuma celebrate the news in 2009 that prosecutors have dropped corruption charges against him. The National Prosecutions Authority said the case had been manipulated for political reasons and cleared the way for Zuma to become the president without the looming threat of a trial. Picture: AP

Published Aug 1, 2011


The general frustration with corruption among South Africans is quite obvious. The sad part of the story is that while the outrage persists against the backdrop of developments such as the public protector’s report on the lease agreement involving the SAPS and the revelations about the alleged secret trust fund belonging to ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, there is still some level of indifference towards corruption among the public in South Africa.

This is usually expressed in overtures to the effect that the media are exaggerating the prevalence of corruption only because black people are becoming affluent.

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Thus, the media are only aimed at undermining black leaders and black elites, who are at helm of power in a democratic South Africa.

This prompts a fundamental suspicion that we need to confront as a nation: do we really have a problem with corruption in the public sector?

This question arises from the observation that those who proliferate corruption seem to have constituencies or followers among the larger communities, disturbingly among the poor.

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It is difficult to blame the larger poor masses for serving as constituencies for corrupt individuals, because it is the very poor who suffer the most due to poor delivery of services arising from corrupt activities. It is equally impossible to shy away from the evidence that quite a significant number of South Africans who are poor seem to have a love-hate relationship with corruption.

We tend to hate corruption, but we have the sentiments that we need to nuance our distaste of corruption in case we may be in a position to benefit from corrupt activities by way of doing business with the government.

There is also a feeling of being “represented” at the level of opulence that the poor seem to draw from corrupt individuals who swindle the taxpayers.

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This is not a simple matter of playing your cards close to your chest when it comes to expressing the outrage against corruption in the public sector; it is also about the propagation of ideas about a life of opulence: the possibility of being a beneficiary.

The extent to which the larger part of our nation would do anything to live a life of opulence should be a major concern. The ushering in of the democratic dispensation in South Africa was also heavily prepackaged with the promise of opulence. Of course, economic freedom, which also means the opportunity to try one’s luck in a free and open society, should not be confused with the promise of opulence. It is necessary to distinguish between realistic expectations and potentially malicious dreams of opulence. There is a daunting gap between expectations on the ground and the reality.

The exaggerated sense of possibilities in South Africa is partially responsible for the indifference towards corruption and the drive towards crass materialism that we are experiencing.

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Unfortunately, there has not been sufficient counter-culture, as some observers have pointed out. The idea of pursuing opulence and lavish lifestyles has dominated the public psyche and has not been met with a meaningful challenge. A life of opulence is also seen as an expression of economic liberation of the previously oppressed.

Lack of a properly constructed notion of building the middle class in South Africa’s public discourse is a deficiency that helps the explosion of the extreme of opulence, making it the dominant view in the popular culture.

With the idea of the middle class, a society becomes capable of being content with a modest life and its meaningfulness. To have a middle class is to reduce the tension between the super-rich and the desperately poor. Even more important, the middle class tends to be quite critical of the government, since they do not harbour the views held by the dominant ruling elites.

However, the difficulty in building the middle class in South Africa leaves us with the majority of the population ultimately susceptible to being co-opted into serving as constituencies for the dominant corrupt elites. This is done by promising the poor that they also deserve to have someone “representing” them at the level of ill-gotten opulence and a lavish lifestyle, someone who shows them what they could achieve as well.

The middle class is a fundamentally suspicious class and it does not trust the ruling elites, hence it seeks no role models from the ruling elites. The poor, however, are often too desperate and seek meaning and reflections from the dominant elites, who may be corrupt.

This relationship completes the cycle as to why the corrupt elites are usually able to exert undue influence on the poor, blackmailing them with a sense of representation and affinity that the poor need.

Apart from the absence of a formidable middle class in South Africa as a class that could moderate the domination of crass materialism in society, South Africa also lacks deliberate efforts to counter the culture of opulence that motivates corruption.

The moral regeneration campaign that has been supported by the government does not do much when it comes to providing citizens with a sense of meaning that is not related to showing opulence and pursuing a lavish lifestyle.

The notion of ubuntu has been drawn upon to remind South Africans about their inner, caring humanity. The concept, having been at the centre of the moral regeneration campaign, falls short of talking to a citizen in a modern societal setting.

Appealing to the concept of ubuntu seems to leave us with prehistoric citizens who spend the entire day helping others to cross the road and generally being nice to each other.

This is hardly a modern citizen, hence this idea of ubuntu cannot be used to appeal to modesty in a competitive and market-driven society.

Ubuntu falls away whenever one is confronted with modern society values such as material ownership and enjoyment of wealth.

So, appealing to ubuntu is not sufficient to push against the rhetoric of “grabbing opportunities” which drives individuals to do almost anything to get rich as quickly as possible, even by way of resorting to corruption.

The idea that it is our time to use state resources to gain economic prosperity is fuelling the drive towards corruption.

This appeals to the notion that black people, too, have to go through the phase of opulence so they can be even with the whites who had a similar advantage during apartheid.

While the majority of the black poor will not get to enjoy this opulence, they are usually lobbied to show their support or loyalty to this “emancipation” phase that directly benefits the dominant rich elites.

How do the poor gain from this process, because they do not directly take part in enjoying opulence?

The poor are expected to undergo a historical emancipation by watching and supporting the few elites showing what is possible for the previously oppressed.

This is supposed to emancipate the historically oppressed and it is sold as a cause that the poor are constantly asked not to betray.

It is the poor who are lobbied to be a constituency for corrupt individuals.

What is important is to educate the larger population that they have no common destiny with individuals who have gained their wealth through corrupt means.

It is only when the poor shun corrupt individuals that corruption will become an unbearable social stigma.

That will signal a move towards a national fight against corruption and malfeasance in South Africa, coupled with the strengthening of the law enforcement agencies against corruption.

n Mathekga is a political analyst

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