On Corruption

By Richard Pithouse · 17 Jul 2012

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Picture credit: millard92/Flickr
Picture credit: millard92/Flickr

Corruption in South Africa is not nearly as ubiquitous as it is in countries like India or Italy. But it is becoming an increasingly ordinary part of the texture of every day life. It is certainly a serious issue and its certainly obscene that even state projects with as urgent a social function as providing school books and housing to the poor are taken more seriously in some quarters as opportunities for personal enrichment than as collective social obligations. Its equally obscene that corporate power has colluded to fix the price of a commodity as basic as bread in a country where its not unusual for people to get through their day on little more than a cup of sweet tea and a couple of slices of white bread.

And while South African banks, and the state that regulates them, came out of the financial crisis with considerably more integrity than the nexus between banks and the state in the United States or much of Europe, we have every reason to be concerned by the fact that our largest bank, ABSA, is now owned by Barclay's Bank in London – an organisation that has proven to be seriously corrupt.

When our public conversation about corruption is inflected with racism, or when it assumes that business, here or in London, automatically provides an ethical and efficient counter-point to the state, it veers off the path of reason. The forms that corruption and its legitimation take vary according to context but both corruption, and its refusal, are found everywhere. We have to set our conversation about corruption right and to be clear that it festers with the same malignancy at the top of the glass and steel monuments to corporate power in New York and Madrid as in government offices in Limpopo. But the fact that the state remains our primary tool to effect systemic transformative social interventions, that its managers are elected on a platform of social promises and that it is supposed to regulate business gives a particular urgency to corruption in the state.

It is striking that while most politicians and officials are against corruption in the abstract very few are willing to take a clear position against concrete instances of corruption. Corruption is often only acted on in the case of individuals who have found themselves in the wrong faction of the ruling party. One result of this is that official discourse is becoming increasingly Orwellian in the sense that politicians and officials make the right public gestures while we all know full well that their words have become little more than an empty posture devoid of any real connection to their intentions. The cynicism towards the political class produced by this corrosion of the public sphere can lead people to turn to experiments with popular democratic alternatives to electoral politics. But it also leads people to abandon the idea of using the state as a tool of collective social transformation in favour of strategies that aim to simply leverage what they can out of the state for individuals or factions. The long-term dangers of this are obvious.

But when our conversation about corruption simply equates it to theft and proposes the creation of better systems of surveillance and prosecution, or the development of a more virtuous class of politicians and officials, as the solution it fails to grasp the functionality of corruption within the ruling party. The time when people were genuinely bonded together in the ANC out of commitment to a collective struggle has largely passed. Today there is a significant extent to which the ANC, from its commanding heights to its most humble branches, is fundamentally organised around the distribution of patronage through the state. Given the extent to which the state is approached as a site from which patronage can be extracted rather than as a tool to achieve collective social transformation it is not surprising that the ANC has often, as in the cases of urban planning, education and traditional authority, used the state to reinscribe apartheid practices rather than to move away from them.

Its obviously important for our conversation about corruption to take full measure of the extent to which the practice reaches into the highest levels of the state and the scale at which the big players can profit from the state. And of course the millions that disappear from education, health and housing budgets are an outrage. But when we don't take full measure of the degree to which corruption has become entrenched at the bottom of society we fail to understand that it is not just a form of theft but that it is also a form of social control and one that poses a profound and often violent threat to democratic practices.

In the transit camps and shack settlements where many of our poorest people live, development, such as it is, is invariably channelled through the ward committees and the Branch Executive Committees of the local party structures. State officials negotiate with these organisations, and ward councillors are usually central to both, rather than with the communities affected by state actions. These organisations are often able to make decisions about who gets services, including housing, and about who gets the tenders and jobs that go with cleaning, building, providing security and so on. The problems that emerge are not only those of blatant corruption, such as charging fees for access to RDP houses or even government shacks in transit camps. They also include the exclusive allocation of houses, tenders and jobs to people who are politically loyal. In some cases this requires the purchase of a party card and in other cases the performance of obedience – attending meetings, rallies and so on – is also required.

When people are working and living informally even universal entitlements, like child support grants, get sucked into the patronage machine into which local party structures have often descended. So, for instance, it is not possible to get a child support grant without having proof of address and when one lives in a shack there are no utility bills to serve as proof of address. The system requires people without the formal means to prove their address to rely on letters from ward councillors. But these letters are routinely withheld from people seen to be politically problematic.

All of this is compounded by the fact that it is very common for the local police to take instruction from the local party structures rather than to follow the law. There are many cases, across the country, where activists that have challenged the capture of local development by local party structures that are more predatory than democratic have been subject to threats and violence at the hands of the police or local party structures. It is increasingly common for the police and local party structures to work together to repress dissent.

The corruption at the bottom of society means that people often join the party out of fear or necessity or out of hope that they too may one day get their share of the spoils. People sometimes joke about buying a party card being like buying a lottery ticket. As S'bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo, an organisation that has paid a considerable price for contesting the subordination of development to party structures and interests, asks “Where does this leave the possibility for values and ethics in politics?”

The corruption at the bottom of society also means that in most shack settlements or transit camps there are people, in or allied to local party structures, that have a direct and personal financial stake in ensuring support for unpopular state programmes, like forced removals to peripheral housing developments or holding people in transit camps year after year.

For this reason corruption, as well as serving to undo the popular conflation of the political and the ethical that was achieved in the mass struggles of the 1980s, also enables the production of relations of local domination that play a central role in containing popular dissent against a state that treats poor people with systemic contempt. 

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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