The revelations about Bosasa underscore five important truths

The Zondo commission is useful in its scope but is not the answer to the societal problem of corruption. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

The Zondo commission is useful in its scope but is not the answer to the societal problem of corruption. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

1. The ANC simply cannot pretend it isn’t on trial at the Zondo commission. It is.

And it has, yet again, been found to be ethically wanting.
The notion that a few rotten apples within the ANC are the exceptions to a dominant story about ethical and servant leadership is not sustainable. The number of ANC cadres seconded to all spheres of government and the state who keep surfacing in the chronicles of corruption are proof that the ANC, qua organisation, is not ethically fit for purpose. This is not just about the agency of individuals. It is also about the agentive power of the organisation not being used to stop corruption. That is culpable neglect at best and criminal organisational collusion at worst. The longer the party takes to come to grips with being denuded the longer it will take to deal with this internal malaise.

2. Corruption isn’t primarily about the state despite the Zondo commission looking into ‘state capture’.

It’s clear that corruption at its core is relational. And that the most active networks of corruption are designed to implicate private interests in the corrupt behaviour of publicly elected officials and state employees. This isn’t news. But popular frameworks that try to make sense of corruption often underplay the centrality of private sector players in corrupt activities in society generally, and specifically the corrupting of state employees. Very few state employees corrupt fellow employees because you need some cash or wealth or resources or power with which to induce corruption in those susceptible to being corrupted.

In fact we sometimes even talk about the Gupta family as if they were part of the state as opposed to being private sector players who preyed ON the state. All of this matters because it means that when we talk about the endemic nature of corruption we cannot restrict ourselves to state-centric analysis of corruption.

3. Corruption is both colour-blind and class-blind.

Both poor and wealthy South Africans are corrupt. And South Africans of all hues have been implicated. The intuition that poverty, inequality or unemployment fuel corruption is at most a small part of the whole truth. Many corrupt companies and corrupt individuals steal from society beyond what they and their families and friends could consume in several lifetimes. This means that access to a good job isn’t a guarantee that someone may not become a criminal when they have their dirty hands on the levers of various kinds of power. Some corrupt people may be motivated by a personal history of deprivation. But many are greedy and perhaps we need to interrogate more carefully what the essence in turn of greed is. Is it for example a fragile ego or low self-esteem that find immoral expression in ostentatious displays of loot? How does one address that?

4. The Zondo commission is useful in its scope but is not the answer to the societal problem of corruption.

A commission of this kind is most useful when it helps us to hold individual persons and legal persons accountable. It is also useful in digging up facts and making recommendations that can be handed over to various parts of the criminal justice system for further investigation and possible prosecution. But we must understand what’s not within the scope to the commission and this isn’t a shortcoming so much as just a set of facts to consider.

4a) The commission isn’t concerned with behaviour change. How do we confront human nature? We aren’t innately good it seems. Many of us are tested when the opportunity to be corrupt is presented to us. Some of us only look virtuous because we are never tested. So how do we best guard against our vulnerabilities? 

One part of this just is about fixing the criminal justice system. If I think there is a very good chance I’ll be arrested and successfully prosecuted I may think twice about breaking the law. A broken criminal justice system or one that was captured isn’t able to play this regulatory role. We must find incentives for flawed humans to do the right thing and effective disincentives to do wrong. This isn’t the role of the commission. We need to use our collective energies in search of a solution to this end.

4b) Systems analysis: One of the more insidious features of corruption that we are learning about is that corruption isn’t simply the sum total of the actions of each corrupt member in the network of corruption. At the risk of sound anthropomorphic, corrupt networks appear to have a kind of life force not reducible to those who enter or leave these networks. This requires complex systems analysis and that is work the commission cannot be expected to do. The worst thing we can do to any commission of inquiry is to ask it boil the ocean. We need to share some of the labour. Some academics and some civil society organisations have, fortuitously, begun doing so and we in the media need to leverage their expertise more fully in helping to get the critical insights into the public space so that citizens are empowered to hold the powerful maximally accountable.

5. Bosasa was never a bona fide company.

Lastly, some companies are bona fide companies who sometimes or even often do wrong. McKinsey is one such example. Bosasa, however, is clearly more like the Gupta companies. It never even existed for bona fide business purposes. It was always a vehicle for apparent criminality. We need to distinguish between companies that set a foot wrong and companies that are simply instruments for rapacious criminality.

Corruption, in the end, will the undoing of our democratic project. We need to crack the drivers of corruption sooner rather than later. A just and inclusive society is at stake.

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