/ 28 July 2023

Corruption overwhelms the land as citizens run out of outrage juice

Graphic Tl Zibi Corruption Twitter 1200px
The Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) has, over the past year, imposed R100 million in penalties against firms and individuals found guilty of misconduct, and referred dozens of cases to the police. (Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

One of the last anti-corruption laws to be passed by parliament before the ANC began its two decades-long pushback was the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act of 2004. It is also known as Precca, and I am not aware of a single instance where the National Prosecuting Authority has used it to prosecute anyone.

 Precca is a work of careful consideration, clearly borne out by practical experience in South Africa and abroad. It primarily targets two strands of corruption.

 The first is the sophisticated exchange of favours, or “gratifications” as it calls them, instead of hard cash in the bank. The second is the tendency of accounting officers to claim ignorance of corrupt activity or evidence of corrupt intent when they actually knew what was going on and decided to look away.

 If an elected or public service official accepts the free use of a house in exchange for influencing an appointed public official to award a tender to the owner or owners of the house, then the entire scheme is deemed to be corrupt. If the said official ought to know, on a preponderance of evidence, that the company that applies for a tender is linked to the powerful, elected individual, then their apparent ignorance is deemed to be part of a corrupt scheme.

 This kind of corruption is popular because it does not involve the exchange of monetary bribes, which attract a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison. Convictions in terms of Precca have a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

 Powerful politicians are more careful of the manner in which they are corruptly compensated for using their influence to amass money and comfort. They obtain “loans”, which are never repaid while they enjoy the use of a car or house bought with the “loan”.

 Seemingly unbothered, their fake creditors never institute any legal proceedings to recover the monies loaned. Others drive cars that “do not belong to them”, but for all intents and purposes, they are for their permanent use. These cars are loaned by generous “friends” they “have known for many years” who happen to appreciate the saintly work of service to the South African people.

 It is this type of scheme both the police and prosecuting authorities have carefully avoided prosecuting by pretending Precca does not exist. Were it to be applied, the upper echelons of the governing party would be decimated. 

Evidence at the Zondo commission on state capture demonstrated so aptly as the few who were asked to make an appearance were at pains to explain the favours they were so fortunate to receive, apparently in exchange for nothing.

 While the refusal of law enforcement to even acknowledge Precca’s existence is extremely worrying, I am often disturbed by the number of people who are easily swayed by the flimsy justifications for corruption. It is even more devastating to see people who ought to know better believe explanations they would not believe if they applied directly to them.

For example, President Cyril Ramaphosa has persisted in his explanation that the money stolen from a couch at his Phala Phala game farm was from the sale of buffalo. The buffalo were never collected, nor were any proceedings to transfer them initiated.

His staff say the money was moved from a safe to a couch for safety reasons! One has to really want to be lied to to believe both, yet so many people insist this explanation suffices. Anyone who asks more difficult questions is dismissed as having “an agenda” against him.

Ramaphosa’s deputy, Paul Mashatile, claims that he lives in a R37 million mansion situated in an estate where the government does not control access instead of the highly secured government house for security reasons. Again, if an adult were to be given an explanation like this by their child, they would either laugh it off or feel insulted.

 Yet, there are people who believe this is a sufficient explanation. Anyone who raises questions is deemed to be a “hater who has an agenda”. It seems there are many people who sing loudly, “Lie to me! Lie to me so that I do not have to reckon with the reality of what is happening. Ignorance is bliss. Please, don’t ask more questions. I prefer not to know.”

Last week a friend forwarded me a message in which the writer complained that by raising pertinent issues about the Ramaphosa and Mashatile matters, I was “behaving like the DA [Democratic Alliance]”. The writer was disappointed because they thought I should “focus on ideas”.

That person is not alone. There are many people who, in response to yet another instance of political bungling, ask self-righteously: “What is your solution?” These are people who appear to believe that our most serious problems exist for want of technical skills and solutions.

 They fall into the same category as people who say there are no political alternatives in South Africa. Alternatively, when they are presented with a political argument to which they have no answer, resort to saying they could not make sense of it when it is plain.

I am not certain what a solution to having a corrupt politician in office is, short of calling out the corruption and then having them electorally removed. Others will insist that political parties must litigate these matters, as if the courts are not overwhelmed with political litigation.

In a democracy, the ultimate guardians are the people. All matters that imperil the country must be known by voters so they may exercise the ultimate political judgment, which is to vote differently at the next election. People cannot make informed political judgments if we respond to corruption by talking about how to solve load-shedding.

Our broken politics is the weakest link in our national chain. Even where technical skills and other valuable experience are concerned, many people with such skills find the politics to be so toxic they refuse to work for the government. They fear being pressured to either look away or to facilitate corruption, the very thing Precca now punishes with a long prison term. In other words, good people who otherwise would make a great contribution do not do so because of politically driven risk. 

They also find the idea of being accountable to people who do not care, or care enough, to know enough about the work they oversee, to be a bridge too far.

When someone asks what the solution is to such an environment, the correct answer is to tell them that it is only when good people stop making excuses and work for political change that things will improve. Until then, we must all live under the oppressive, degenerative conditions that define whether people are going to live and die in state facilities and communities all over the country.

It is an indictment we must avoid. The solutions, such as Precca, are there. It is the right people that are missing in action.

Songezo Zibi is the leader of a new political party, Rise Mzansi.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.