/ 22 July 2020

Fight the disease of corruption in the same way we fight the coronavirus

Sassa Collection In Alexandra Photo Delwyn Verasamy
The MTBPS stresses that there are already 18.3 million citizens who receive one or another form of welfare grant. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

“Kunzima [it’s tough], my boy.” These were the last words my 78-year-old mother sputtered over the phone before she was admitted to hospital, her voice strangled and hoarse as if scrubbed with sandpaper. Ordinarily, even with an axe in her head, she would say, “Akukubi [It’s not bad]”. A persistent denialist, but this time there was no denying Covid-19. 

Gogo Dlamini was her name — long before former public protector Thuli Madonsela invoked “Gogo Dlamini”, the average citizen the state should keep in mind when it serves the people. To cope with countless sorrows, Mom lived her life choosing to see with her heart and not her eyes. Paradoxically, in the last year of her life, she lost her eyesight — as though it was a limit placed on how much sorrow she should witness in a lifetime. 

Doctors tell us that the severity of Covid-19 hinges on whether a patient has underlying health conditions induced by lifestyle habits or genes. Mom had both. I can’t help but think that if Mzansi was a person, it would be like Gogo Dlamini — plagued by hereditary and lifestyle complications in the battle against Covid-19 and corruption. 

Covid-19 and corruption pick on both the strong and weak, the wealthy and the poor, the government and the private sectors, the political and apolitical, black and white people, the young and the old — especially older people. 

Mzansi’s hereditary complications of inequality, poor education and poverty are born out of our history of racism, exploitation, dispossession and violence. Lifestyle complications are low accountability levels and maladministration born out of pervasive corruption and aided by incompetence and inequality. Unaddressed,  we are a lame duck for a pandemic pummelling.

Covid-19 can annihilate the body; corruption does the same to our economy. The diversion of tax money from Gogo Dlamini’s clinics, hospitals, roads and schools and erosion of public trust are but a few of the symptoms of corruption. It handicaps the state’s ability to help facilitate growth in a way that benefits all citizens. 

Those with compromised lung conditions are susceptible to succumb to Covid-19. Corruption, on the other hand, is a veritable smokers’ lung disease on the state’s coffers — self-sabotage that suffocates the resources of the nation. Like chain smokers, the culprits of corruption are addicted to it. To make matters worse, like an alcoholic who finds every excuse to drink, whether at a party or funeral, the offenders always find opportunities and incentives for corruption. It rears its ugly head everywhere, whether it was the 2010 Fifa World Cup party or the funeral of the father of the nation or, like now, an unprecedented pandemic. 

While the pandemic is pulverising lives and livelihoods, we learn that R5.7-million in Unemployment Insurance Funds (UIF) was paid to a single person instead of the 200 desperate workers affected by the lockdown. People are weeping with no food on the table after the companies they faithfully served for years received UIF money yet did not pay it over. What about the R40-million spent on overpriced blankets and sanitisers? The food parcels plundered by politicians?. 

Covid-19 has no vaccine, yet we are fighting it better than corruption. We fight corruption symptomatically, as though it is a new isolated event and not a pervasive pandemic, and our remedies are failing. We go after political opponents instead of applying the law to everyone. Senior ranking officials and certain companies enjoy impunity while low low-level officials and companies committing comparatively minor offenses are met with the full might of the law.

Our economy seems to be chained by an impenetrable bureaucracy, characterised by legal and regulatory complexity. More often than not, we seem to glorify keeping to the letter of the law over substance even where doing so trumps the reason the law was made in the first place. The unintended effect (or perhaps intended by those diabolically inclined) is that instead of starving the problem, we create more incentives and more opportunities for more corruption. 

For years the auditor general has been diagnosing and prescribing medication which the practitioners have been unwilling to administer. Parliament has been sleeping on the job; MPs fight for legroom to rest their feet instead of holding the delinquent practitioners to account while Mzansi deteriorates. 

Just like Mom needed my sister Sibo and her husband Sbu to get her to the hospital and, once there, the medics to help her, we need the government, the private sector and active citizenry to work together to push back the tide of corruption. We all have different yet equally important roles to take care of the patient, Mzansi — or Gogo Dlamini — and rid our land of this virus before it kills our future. 

Unfortunately for Mom, despite the medics being on top of their game and working around the clock to save her life, she devastatingly did not make it. In contrast, the medicines for Mzansi are running out, with incompetence at key oversight positions the number one enabler of corruption, but we still have a fighting chance. Mom left a beautiful legacy of triumph over tragedy. We need to do the same for the future generations of our beautiful country. Let’s stop being denialists and look corruption in the eye and fight it the same way we fight Covid-19.

Themba Dlamini is a chartered accountant, speaker, author and founder of Melanation Media.