Corruption and the 'two publics'

Afro-pessimists must reflect gleefully on the steady stream of corruption scandals fixating the post-apartheid South African media. After all, this is Africa, they say knowingly, and we are merely a postcolonial Johnny-come-lately to the continental way of doing things.

But, before we resign ourselves to the inevitable folly of human beings being seduced by the lure of easy money, let us think about the notion of “corruption” a bit more. There is something revealing in the trials of public officials who have gained financially through the offices they have held that reflects a wider ethos in our society. Recall the supportive crowds around the Shaik trial, the triumphant hero’s treatment accorded to Tony Yengeni as he entered jail on the shoulders of senior ANC leaders, surrounded by rank-and-file members. A preview of the affection Jacob Zuma is likely to receive in the event that he is charged with corruption was on display during his rape trial earlier this year.

A significant section of the public, both black and white, remains flabbergasted by these demonstrations of support, because what is at stake is a clear matter of guilt or innocence, with no mitigating grey areas.

But, is it that clear? If corruption is to be dealt with effectively it cannot be understood by a simple recourse to human nature. It will have to be analysed in its historical context.

Some years ago Nigerian political theorist Peter Ekeh applied his mind to the question of “corruption” in Africa. Recall that the excess of “petrodollars” in the 1970s was translated into easily available International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans to many African leaders. Multinationals seeking preferential trade and investment opportunities made possible by these loans also offered many African leaders informal financial and material “incentives”, making public office a lucrative business proposition, and along the way propping up some of the most authoritarian regimes on the continent.

By the 1980s, as the repayments of loans became an issue and structural adjustment policies became the panacea, conditions such as “transparency” were applied to future lines of credit and investment. “Corruption”—the very practices that were used to good effect by multinational agencies and companies—became the bane of existence for many leaders seeking to quench their thirst at the now-dripping taps that once gushed credit.

Nigeria, with its oil and military rule, became the classic case through which some argued that we Africans are genetically prone to be corrupt and tribal. Ekeh was not convinced and, in a seminal article, Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa (1975), he showed that the effect of indirect colonial rule in Africa had created a set of loyalties and obligations different to those common in modern European societies.

Remember that Africans were denied citizenship in what we call “civil society,” and were obligated to live under the customary authority of a chief and to be seen as “tribal” subjects. For many Africans, particularly those who migrated to urban areas, the city was a place for “citizens” (in South Africa, for whites).

The city was thus a place to be used for what you could get out of it, but you would feel no obligation to the place. As an African, one felt an obligation, Ekeh argued, to the “rural,” or to the ethnic community, since it was there that you had not only things you were entitled to but also obligations for which you had to account. This legacy, Ekeh argued, continues in the postcolonial period, where the realm of “civil society” is seen as something from which one extracts maximum benefit, but towards which one feels minimum obligation or accountability.

Political theorist John Rawls argued that modern liberal societies aspire to a notion of “justice as fairness”. It is this notion that makes corruption illegal in our society, because it implies someone has gained through a process in which we did not all have an equal opportunity to compete. A tender process in which some benefit from an influence that others do not have on the decision-makers would not be seen as just because it is not fairly administered or contested.

It seems to me, however, that many South Africans have never experienced level playing fields, nor do they see them as being level today. This is the legacy bequeathed to us by apartheid. As a result, some of those who come into public office think that corruption is fairness: why stick to the rules when the rules of the game have never been in your favour?

Thinking that it is acceptable to use any means necessary to get a good deal is a jetlagged ethic bequeathed to us by the legacy of apartheid. That the “leaders” who are implicated in corrupt practices often feel self-righteous about what they have done, and in fact talk about their convictions as a travesty of justice akin to the apartheid era, and have supporters who think they have done nothing wrong and consider the legal process unfair, is indicative of this way of thinking about the law.

South Africa needs to reconcile two distinct and often conflicting notions of justice: popular justice and legal justice. Until some of our leaders and their supporters realise that it is legal justice that is now the most popular form of justice in South Africa, they too will find themselves feeling wronged and surprised when they become the latest public scandal to hit the headlines.

Suren Pillay is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of the Western Cape

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