Corruption by any other name

Until a day or two ago, I thought of name-dropping as a harmless, albeit unedifying, practice, perpetrated by inadequate individuals.

Harmless, because people who have to aggrandise themselves by dropping the names of the kings and rock stars that they hang out with generally do not possess the individual power to do much harm.

Unedifying, not only because there is much that is pathetic about an individual who has to bathe in the reflected glory of others, but also because they are precisely the people of whom the really powerful think little; the small people who obsequiously buy the rounds of drinks to procure their seat at the table.

We now learn that, far from being harmless, name-dropping is the root cause of corruption — to wit, the massive abuse of public power and resources that gave a wealthy family free run of a military base to land their wedding guests in South Africa.

Awareness campaign
Indeed, so dangerous is the practice of name-dropping that the government has accepted the recommendation of the directors general tasked with investigating this incident that the government, led by the department of public service and administration, should develop and implement a public service awareness campaign to discourage the negative culture of name-dropping in the form of improper use of the names of members of the executive in the public sector. In addition, the definition of acts of misconduct should be amended across the government to include name-dropping as gross misconduct.

However, to characterise what happened at the Waterkloof base as a consequence of name-dropping is to trivialise a serious breakdown in and corruption of public administration. At best, it's a gross euphemism, an attempt to deny what really happened and why it happened.

Interestingly, this is not reflective of the style of the report, which is full of strong, forthright language. Terms such as "false information", "abuse of privilege", "manipulation" by persons "acting in concert", "abuse of higher office" and ­"exercise of undue influence" are liberally sprinkled throughout the report. So why not call it by its name and any of these will do. Recognising a problem for what it is is the first step towards confronting it and curing it.

What seems to have happened is that a wealthy family, professing to possess the authority of the president and two Cabinet ministers, got a senior Indian diplomat, a senior South African public servant and a high-ranking air force officer to make an airforce base available for their private use. Accepted diplomatic practice and domestic rules and regulations were simply ignored in the process.

Political connections
How could this happen? In one, or both, of two ways. The persons dropping the name were generally thought to speak with the authority of the president and other high-ranking state officials. It is not difficult to see why this status should extend to the Gupta family. After all, they are business associates and employers of close members of the president's family. They have made no bones about their political connectedness. Indeed, they have loudly proclaimed it.

If this is what happened, it still doesn't excuse the conduct of the South African officials who blithely permitted multiple contraventions of South African law, including security arrangements. They should know that the law applies to the president and members of his Cabinet in the same way as it applies to ordinary citizens. Imagine if it didn't. We could have the likes of the Guptas demanding all sorts of privileges that place them above the law.

If on their simple say-so the regulations governing the use of a military base can be ignored, then one may even imagine public-procurement regulations being violated to favour a Gupta company. Or public money being spent to advertise a Gupta business product.

But it doesn't end with the South African officials at the coalface. Assuming, as I do, that the president and his Cabinet colleagues did not know how their names and their offices were being abused, we have 'in the words of the task-team report, the wilful use of "false information", an "abuse of privilege", "abuse of higher office" and "exercise of undue influence". By whom? We are not told this by the task team, but all runways lead to the Gupta family. I would be extremely surprised if conduct of this sort was not a contravention of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act (Precca).

Of course, it also calls into question the judgment of South African public figures who continue to associate with people who would abuse them and the offices that they hold in this manner.

In the wake of this incident, some have stridently asserted that the president's private life is the business of the president alone. But public figures do not have private lives. As Jackie "finish and klaar" Selebi discovered, police commissioners cannot be private friends of people involved in organised crime. Just as presidents can't be friends of, and their family members cannot be business associates of, those who use this friendship for private gain.

Alternatively, the senior South African and Indian officials may have known that the Guptas did not actually speak with the authority of the president or his Cabinet members. After all, at least one Cabinet minister had already turned down their official request to make use of the Waterkloof base.

In which case, we have to ask why they agreed to this extraordinary request. If they did not think that they were following orders, what did it take to persuade them to flagrantly break the law in this way? This too requires an answer, because if they had gained privately by conniving in breaking the law then this too would seem to violate Precca.

Displaying power
What were the Gupta's thinking? Airports Company South Africa turned down their request to use, or rather abuse, OR Tambo International. The minister of defence turned down their request to use Waterkloof. It was suggested that they use the international airport at Pilanesberg, a 10-minute drive from the wedding venue at Sun City. But the Guptas spurned this offer. Why? I can only imagine that they wanted to display their power — to their Indian guests and to their South African hosts.

After all, if you do not periodically flaunt your power, then some may forget that it exists and begin to ignore your edicts. If this is so, then they seem to have overreached themselves.

It is interesting to note that the task team recommends further investigation of the possible transgression of five statutes ranging from the Road Traffic Act to the Companies Act.

It conspicuously omits to mention that the woefully underenforced Precca may also have been contravened. If the government wants to put this scandal to rest, it may be time to bring out the big guns. Name-dropping, my foot. Call this gross abuse of power corruption, for that is what it is, and act accordingly.

David Lewis is the executive director of Corruption Watch


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