The banality of corruption

Immunity: South Africa’s politicians are so used to corruption that they don’t even realise when they’re doing it (Madelene Cronjé)

Immunity: South Africa’s politicians are so used to corruption that they don’t even realise when they’re doing it (Madelene Cronjé)

There’s a cheesy saying I like because it contains a grain of truth. Apparently one should “judge a person not by their actions, but by their every reaction”. The saying is a little inelegant in this pithy formulation, but the core insight is easy to unravel.

When we act deliberately, with the benefit of planning and careful consideration of the consequences that might flow from each different action open to us, we are able to skilfully mask bad intentions, character flaws, shameful habits and even deeply held beliefs we do not wish to reveal to others.
We can strategise.

That isn’t a bad thing. The world is complex. The ability to game your way through interviews, the world of work, social spaces and, generally, to be a reasonably well-adjusted human being in a heterogeneous society, sometimes requires the ability to hold back before acting or speaking, to think long and hard, and then decide what is in your prudential interest to do or say.

What is very cool, however, about being caught off guard, at other times, is that society sometimes gets a chance to see who we truly are because our unconscious behaviour can reveal a well of useful evidence about our intentions, character, habits and beliefs.

Obviously there are exceptions. Unconscious actions do not always reveal our innermost core. That is why we have phrases in everyday communication such as “behaving out of character”. We cannot here explore fully when unconscious behaviour should not be regarded as revealing. Suffice to say that, generally speaking, how we behave when we let our guard down can be a window into our true selves. That happens when we “react” to unplanned events. 

The point is that, when we are tested and have little chance to choreograph our responses, we might inadvertently show off parts of our hidden self.

Which brings me to the chief executive of Just Coal, Joe Singh. About two weeks ago this man admitted to me on my radio show, in a live interview, that he had, in fact, given R500 000 to the ANC Youth League with the explicit intention that the league, motivated by this gift, may successfully secure the continuation of a multibillion-rand coal supply contract with Eskom.

I asked the question more than once, in what was a fairly long interview, precisely because I wanted to make sure he was not mistakenly revealing to us something that is false about himself. I also wanted to ensure that he was not misunderstanding the meaning of the words in the questions I was putting to him.

He understood. He repeated the fact that he explicitly thought that the league had access to the ear of the acting chief executive of Eskom, Matshela Koko, and he explicitly told us that he had hoped the league would successfully persuade Koko not to stop a contractual relationship between Just Coal and Eskom. 

It is patently obvious that Singh was admitting to grossly unethical business practice. Most lawyers who are experts in criminal law I have subsequently spoken to also think it is clear, based on the audio of the interview that I shared with them, that Singh is a textbook example of someone who, inadvertently, confessed to falling foul of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act.

Here is the interesting bit: Singh was utterly unfazed by his own admission. He was nonchalant. He was even jovial with my producer after the interview. He appeared, until he saw tweets to the contrary, completely oblivious to what he had just admitted to on live radio.

So what happened here? Did he misspeak? Was he acting “out of character” during this exchange? I doubt it. He is a very successful person who has adequate practical intelligence and the skill set to negotiate the complex, competitive world of business. He is no fool.

The truth, I think, is that Singh was not acting deliberately. His responses were not the result of careful prior planning, having strategised how we would negotiate the interview. This was not deliberate behaviour based on professional advice from a seasoned spin doctor or the company’s head of communications.

Singh let his guard down. He was relaxed. He was, rather than acting and gaming, simply reacting almost unthinkingly to my questions. These kinds of reactions are great because, unlike rehearsed statements read out at a press conference, real-time reactions tell us who we are dealing with. It requires enormous skill, when you are under fire, not to give the public a glimpse of your true self.

Singh did us a favour by revealing himself. In the process, he showed himself to be yet another South African who routinely engages in corrupt activities. He drew us into his shadowy world and showed it off, accidentally. These unethical business practices are so banal and commonplace in Singh’s world that obviously his reactions to my questions could not strike him as imprudent. Corruption happens routinely in Singh’s world, and is the norm. Such is the banal truth about everyday corruption in the Republic of Gupta.

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