For years, we have been subjected to an avalanche of stories revealing just how deeply corruption is entrenched in our society.
Many of them — a wedding extravaganza, a Louis Vuitton bag full of cash, a demand to put someone’s son in a sports team — would seem better suited to a magical realist novel than to a newspaper.
But we’re hardly the first society to have to confront this. A politician in Brazil was found to have $55-million in cash in his home and there are stories from Mexico, India, Italy and many other countries that would fit just as well in Ngugi wa’Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow as any vignette from our own fantastical cornucopia of high-end corruption.
Corruption often leads to pervasive cynicism about politicians and the state. In many societies, it has been going on for so long that people have become jaded and don’t expect anything better from the political class. But, in some countries, pervasive corruption has opened up a route to power for rightwing demagogues claiming that they’ll end the rot. The most pressing example of this is in Brazil.
In South Africa, where the ANC has at times successfully substituted itself for the nation, and politics often takes on messianic tones, there is frequently a bitter sense of betrayal.
This is often central to accounts of the post-colony. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon excoriates the corruption of the political class in newly independent states. In novels such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Ayi Kwa Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, there is an overwhelming and visceral sense of rot.
The ANC’s attempt to present Cyril Ramaphosa as being at the head of the forces opposed to corruption has gone some distance towards renewing the party’s credibility. But some support has been permanently lost and there are still people who explicitly seek to legitimise the forces that had cohered around Jacob Zuma as emancipatory
The moves typically used in this game are well known. They include pointing to enduring white wealth, talking up radical ideas without acting on them and claiming that corruption is not limited to the state.
It is, of course, true that corruption is generalised and can be found everywhere, from corporations to universities, churches and non-governmental organisations. Although it is imperative that it is exposed and opposed everywhere, and although there are significantly powerful organisations outside of the state that should be subject to investigation, the state does have a particularly powerful standing in a society and influence on it.
South Africa has a rich history of political aspirations and practices that exceed the state and electoral democracy, including ideas and practical experiments of various kinds that were generated within powerful popular movements and that are now part of what Rosa Luxemburg called “the mental sediment” of living memory.
In the 1980s, the idea that “the people shall govern” was often understood to refer to direct participation in decision-making within communities and institutions rather than simply a conception of democracy limited to representation through elections to Parliament.
There were powerful forces within the trade union movement that looked to a future in which industrial work would be organised under worker control rather than nationalisation under the authority of a managerial class.
Much of this was displaced, in terms of thought and action, by the encounter between the profound statism of the ANC returning from exile and the global hegemony of the form of liberalism that, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, sought to normalise a restricted conception of democracy.
Today, the unthinking representation of every form of protest by impoverished black people as a “service delivery protest” creates the impression that popular politics is solely a matter of issuing a set of demands to the state. But the reality is that it is not unusual for protest to be about organisation and struggles unrelated to “delivery”. In some cities, popular strivings and struggles are doing far more to win access to urban land outside the strictures of the market than the state is.
Nonetheless, the state remains an extraordinarily powerful instrument. It can do everything from perpetrating the Marikana massacre to making access to treatment for those living with HIV available to millions. It can also enable or block people’s own strivings to realise progress. For this reason, and because the state is widely understood to be the primary instrument of democratic authority, what happens in the state is a matter of huge importance for society.
But, although the state determines much of the terrain on which we all build our lives, the weight of its power is generally felt most intensely by people who do not have access to the wealth that can enable access to private housing, education, healthcare, security, pensions, legal representation and so on. For most people, there is a direct correlation between the amount of money that they have and the degree to which their life is shaped by the state.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that the characterisation of the state, and the political class, in terms of gangsterism was heard in the organising emerging from the most impoverished parts of our society long before the middle classes began to grasp the extent of the rot.
Well before the Guptas hosted their wedding at Sun City, impoverished people were finding that access to things such as documents, housing and jobs was being systemically mediated by exploitative, and at times even sadistic, representatives of the state and the ruling party.
Of course impoverished people often use corruption to their advantage. It can be a mechanism to enable certain forms of inclusion. For instance, the general trajectory of an urban land occupation is that, once land has been secured, the next step is to access electricity, water and sometimes sanitation.
This can be achieved via explicitly informal means or it can be attained with a strategically useful veneer of formality by bribing municipal officials to install services.
But when a housing budget is spent without any houses being built, when they are built so badly that they are less habitable than shacks, or when they are allocated only to party members and people who pay bribes, corruption can, and most often does, compound exclusion.
Similarly, the collapse of institutions such as state hospitals and schools has a social cost that is largely paid in suffering by the most vulnerable people in our society.
Those who try to use the evidence of corporate corruption as mitigation for state corruption disregard the effect it has on the lives of the people who most require the state to work for them. The same is true of the demagogues, now ranged across numerous organisations, some as vociferous as they are tiny, who point to white wealth to argue that state corruption is emancipatory.
The simple moralism that, without context, presents the evidently corrupt as simply evil and their accusers as simply virtuous is not adequate to understand why, in political terms, corruption, although not a popular form of populism, nonetheless sustains a popular constituency.
To understand this, we must understand that corruption can be a matter of strategy as well as virtue. Antonio Gramsci argued that “between consent and force stands corruption (which is characteristic of certain situations when it is hard to exercise the hegemonic function, and when the use of force is too risky)”.
He was examining corruption as a tool to sustain the authority of a ruling bloc when its credibility, and therefore authority to rule, is being called into question.
We know this well from our own history. The apartheid state used corruption to try to build consent for its authority among elites in the Bantustan and tricameral systems.
But corruption can also be a way for excluded people, who lack the certification, wealth or networks to access opportunity through formal systems, to make their way ahead. In South Africa, it has enabled the enrichment of a counter-elite, who, in terms of their social origins, can often claim to represent, or at least be proximate to, an excluded majority.
This is not the case with, say, the Watsons or the Guptas, but it is true of others who have benefited from similar practices on a smaller scale and at a more local level.
For many people, the new order has sustained their exclusion but corruption enables them to use their relationships and personal histories to attain social progress. They do, therefore, experience it as a route to a certain kind of personal emancipation. For others around them it may be entirely rational to see a similar route to progress as their best option for advancement.
Of course, the propaganda that presents corrupt forms of accumulation as advancing the excluded majority is at best a comforting delusion and at worst an outright lie. The corruption of the state overwhelmingly functions to worsen the situation of the majority and is frequently a direct cause of terrible and avoidable suffering.
But attempts to achieve collective social and political investment in the integrity of the state and other institutions are unlikely to succeed if the state, and other institutions, continue to sustain rather than undo systemic exclusion.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research