/ 4 April 2017

How will South Africa tackle corruption?

Democratic Alliance supporters hold 'Stop Corruption' posters at the launch of the party's local government election manifesto in April last year.
Democratic Alliance supporters hold 'Stop Corruption' posters at the launch of the party's local government election manifesto in April last year.


South Africa should confront the fact that anti-corruption politics always occurs on two levels. The first concerns fighting corruption. Everyone agrees, at least in public, that corruption is a bad thing.

The second level concerns on whose terms corruption is fought, which is really a matter of how to use anti-corruption in a manner that builds power for one’s preferred political project. At that point everyone disagrees. Any fight against corruption becomes divided on the terms.

Contrary to popular expectations, how South Africa aligns on the second level is more crucial, including to whether the country will satisfactorily resolve its corruption problem.

Every serious political tendency operates at both these levels. At least since the classical Greeks, the upper classes have argued that corruption was inherent to rule by the poor. By way of the 17th-century English Levellers, British radicals, then traditions of socialism and anarchism, outsiders have pointed out that corruption is endemic to the way rich people rule. White racists blame corruption on black people. Black nationalists and radicals blame corruption on white people. Even corrupt people blame corruption on other corrupt people, to gain advantage in factional conflicts over the spoils of office.

Such views on corruption are usually not cynical. They are not consciously manipulative. Rather, self-interested human beings develop deeply held ideas and justifications around their political actions, including actions against corruption. So, thinking about corruption has been drawn into broader political ideologies, such as liberalism. In return anti-corruption politics has been employed as a feature of ideological conflicts, where attempts to resolve corruption are simultaneously attempts to shape the more encompassing future of societies.

Across the world, the dominant player in these anti-corruption conflicts is liberalism. The historical rise of liberalism, rooted firmly among the upper classes of the capitalist economy, has involved a definite shift in definitions of corruption.

On an earlier, classical or republican definition, the term “corruption” referred expansively to processes of decline, decay, debasement and disintegration of the body politic, its organising principles and the moral virtue of its participants. This conception of corruption drew upon classical Greek thinkers. It was present variously in Roman usage of the Latin antecedent of our word, corrumpere, and related terms. It continues latently in South Africa’s public debate, for instance in critiques of apartheid as an essentially corrupt system. It remains in properly classical associations of corruption with issues of wider moral degeneration, factionalism and inequality.

Our modern, liberal definition, in which corruption refers more precisely to violations of public official rules for personal gain, was sharpened in Britain especially in the 18th century. It did so amid an intensification of thinking about and development of public organisations, an intensification produced by the tentative emergence of liberal demo-cracy, capitalism and escalating international warfare. The modern or liberal definition therefore serves legal and organisational purposes through, for instance, the offence of corruption written into South African law. But the definition has also come to serve more political purposes.

Defining corruption as the violation of public official rules for personal gain focuses anti-corruption politics on individuals’ motivations, actions and relationships. In this characteristically liberal move, the primacy of the individual serves to shift attention away from the broader socioeconomic contexts in which corruption thrives. In part this is because people don’t want to bear the costs of addressing the problems of those contexts. This is a feature of South Africa’s anti-corruption politics.

Anti-corruption politics in post-apartheid South Africa has always had a problematic edge. From 1994 white, generally upper-class South Africans confronted a state that was being populated with people who were not their own. That post-apartheid state came to drive a measure of social mobility, leading white South Africa to become anxious about its existing accoutrements of class and status. Its response from 1994 was to assert legal and moral order in defence of a racialised social order. The term “corruption” was used to police deviations from notions of merit, impartiality, legality and public interest, in service to the protection of privileges.

Anti-corruption continues to be the chief weapon of, for instance, the official opposition. Helen Zille, the Democratic Alliance premier in the Western Cape, has recently said that corruption is a product of what she calls “African racial-nationalism”. Associated lines of thought frame corruption as endemic to left-wing governments, or the result of state intervention in the market economy. These are basically self-interested and poorly evidenced views.

Confronted with this ideological impetus, most left formations, for and of the black working class and poor, are uneasy about or openly despise anti-corruption politics. Those left formations that rightly see the overriding costs of corruption, choosing engagement rather than spectatorship, largely fail to generate a public understanding that moves beyond the liberal focus on individual wrongdoing.

Here lies a significant problem. Systemic corruption is more surely a characteristic of societies where there is extensive inequality and poverty. That fact is inescapable. In such societies, the rightful advance of the disadvantaged relies upon the state. Those with political and personal weight are inclined towards using the state, including through private sector relationships, to advance more surely and quickly. In the process of pursuing such personal interests the rules are invariably broken.

Such processes of necessary redistribution can be managed openly and impartially, in a more egalitarian fashion, by public administrations that are appropriately insulated from illegal political interference.

But most people in South Africa won’t have an interest in developing such administrations until they’re founded on a credible commitment to benefiting the mass of the working class and poor through massive redistribution.

It is only the left that can generate the accompanying vision. When it does so it would have found a way to win on both levels of anti-corruption politics, not as a spectator or a follower, but as a substantial force in its own interests.

Ryan Brunette is a researcher at the Public Affairs Research Institute. He co-ordinates its public policy programme, working on corruption-related issues in the public sector. The views expressed here are his own.