Corruption and the Colour of One's Skin

By Saliem Fakir · 25 Nov 2008

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Picture: Steve Wampler
Picture: Steve Wampler

Somebody coming from Mars would be forgiven for thinking that the era of black rule is rife with corruption and nepotism.

The white world would have been thought of as being better if one is to believe that its history was always populated with saints. History though. is infrequently remembered for what it is, seldom uncovered for all of its diversity and always selectively appropriated. Short memory, too, is the enemy of history -- and there is lots of it going around.

When it comes to power and the temptation to exploit it for gain - personal or for one’s own group - history shows that colour is a spurious ingredient in this mix.

Yet, we are more prone to talk about it with the lens of race rather than seeing corruption as being endemic to the corrupting influence of power and a sore mark on every human striving for perfection.

As Geoff Mulgan, in his book Good and Bad Power notes, it is insufficient that rulers enter with high virtues when the context in which they work makes them prone to corrupt behaviour.

Mulgan is referring to money. Those who have lots of it to offer usually breed the culture of deviousness and create the conditions rife for corruption. But money is not the only thing -- status, career mobility and patronage also play a big role in promoting this culture.

As he notes: “..because the control of the state was so immensely valuable, all states were prone to capture by small groups and vested interests, and they have repeatedly been turned into predatory devices for exploiting and dominating the people they might otherwise serve.”

Mulgan argues that those in government in general have an in-built bias and favour for the rich and powerful simply because the power of the rich enhances their own. What good is a street vendor or pauper when you’re dealing with high stakes? So the thought goes.

There are good reasons for this, Mulgan writes:  “To understand how states behave, we have to recognize that they also serve themselves – they exist in order to exist, and devote a high proportion of their energies to maintaining themselves..”

Self-seeking and self-serving becomes an ingrained culture – especially when local grassroots pressure diminishes over time. There should be no surprise, then, when one finds a perplexing anomaly: democracy is no guarantee for less corruption.  Often, democracy does the opposite; it unwittingly hands over far too much to public institutions in the hope that they will act in the public interest.

The over-emphasis on virtues without the study of context is to seek virtue from a void of safeguards. It for this reason that the rule-of-law, civic vigilance and other safeguards are necessary to guard even the most virtuous of people from being tempted by power. 

Where there is a lot to take, there will always be a lot of devious people out to grab what their hands can get hold of. Race politics in South Africa has often played to the favour of the corrupt simply because they had developed an elaborate system of patronage for their own kind in which ordinary citizens, because of their racial allegiances, have condoned and accepted the unacceptable.

This conditioning to silence is one of the traps of racial politics – when there is black corruption whites speak out the most, when there is white corruption blacks speak out the most, but rarely do both speak of it in a universal manner and with fairness.

Justice is colour-bound rather than colour-blind. You close ranks with those who are of your kind and closest to you. That day will have been a monumental achievement for our young democracy, when race conflicts deal with corruption with colour-blindness.

Not too far in the distant past, though, during the Rhodes and Kruger eras, power had a funny way of transforming its possesses - just like it is today and it will be tomorrow - from saints into characters with dubious credentials over time. Martin Meredith, in a seminal book Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa, speaks of today through the lens of yesterday.

He doesn’t present Cecil John Rhodes and Paul Kruger in a favourable light, but rather men obsessed by the cravings of power.  Rhodes himself admitted that the pursuit of wealth for its own sake was futile.

Wealth had to serve the ends of power and hence his long journey pursuing diamond and gold deals to build his personal empire and that of Britain. For the sake of this behemoth, he was prepared to do anything.

Rhodes was devious, manipulative, clever and unstoppable. He could well have been the Brett Kebble of his day. Realising that the opportunity to accumulate vast riches out of the Kimberley diamond mine would not come without changing the laws and building a railway line between Kimberley and the Cape, Rhodes enlisted himself as candidate to serve in the Cape parliament.

Rhodes became a Member of Parliament (MP) and later Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Both as MP and Prime Minister, Rhodes became the past master of turning the political establishment into an instrument to consolidate the monopoly of his mining interests and that of his friends.

He lobbied the then government to build the railway track so as to lower logistical costs for the mining conglomerates. Rhodes the enigmatic figure did the dirty job himself. Building, as a result, acceptability for the culture of mingling business with politics.

His single biggest achievement as MP was to have the Diamonds Trade Act of 1882 passed as a piece of legislation designed to stop illicit diamond buyers.

The law was draconian, allowing the capture of suspects on the presumption of guilt, trial without jury, search and seizer provisions that violated people’s basic rights (both black and white) such as intrusive bodily searches.

Rhodes also intervened to undo the process of justice.

In October 1883, when police fired on strikers, killing six white workers, Rhodes worked the parliament’s corridors to have an investigation into the case squashed. He succeeded. All in the interest of his and his friends’ mining ventures.

Rhodes used his wealth to buy political support, including a controlling share in the Cape Argus, so that its editorials reflected his own interests and views in parliament. The deal was done in secrecy so as to preserve the Argus’ image of independence. He also built numerous political alliances and funded the campaigns and candidacies of others.

He agitated against the black and coloured franchise in the Cape throughout his life and was a key figure in ensuring the first pass laws and segregationist policies instituted on the mines to control the movement of black labour and make it more amenable to the interest of the mining houses.

When gold was discovered in the Transvaal, Rhodes and his cronies hatched political plots to unseat the then President, Paul Kruger and ensure that the Randlords and the British Empire gained control of the Transvaal.

By the time of the Anglo-Boer War, the Transvaal became the world’s largest gold producing region in the world and quite a strategic region, like oil regions are today.

Rhodes understood that his own share in the lucrative gold industry would not materialise if he did not win claims and territory under the name of the British Empire. Fortunes for the empire also secured fortunes for himself. So he created new institutions to enrich himself and expand the interests of the British Empire.

The British South Africa Company was the equivalent of the East India Company. It was granted by the British sovereign, the license to do deals, own territory and hold a private army in the name of the Empire. Since democracy was in those early days, a fledgling affair and did not quite have the separation of powers we have today, Rhodes got away with many conflicts of interest. 

As for Kruger, he started off as a popular Afrikaner leader, but his esteem dwindled, as he too suffered weaknesses. Meredith writes that in his sixties “(Kruger) became increasingly dictatorial, resentful of opposition, prone to monumental rages and obstructive of change... and believed that he was divinely inspired.”

Gold proceeds filled the coffers of the Transvaal government’s treasury. There were large surpluses to spend and many public infrastructure programmes were commissioned. The vast riches that were accumulated brought their own problems and temptations.

There were numerous disputes about how concessions to private developers and investors were granted by the Transvaal Republic. Kruger was accused by burghers and non-burghers, alike, of nepotism.

Kruger seemed to have a predilection for granting concessions to German and Dutch companies. He had his own little arms scandal in 1887, involving a 16-year exclusive concession for the production of and trade in dynamite, gun powder, explosives and ammunition, to a German company and the process under which such a tender was granted was a subject of enquiry and criticism. Kruger’s reputation as a leader was dwindling.

His response to allegations of corruption was that there was nothing wrong in giving gifts as long as it did not involve bribery. Meredith writes that corruption was so rife in that period that people used to make a joke about the existence of a ‘third volksraad’ – ‘the collection of businessmen, politicians and officials willing to trade favours for payment’.

Had it not been for the Anglo-Boer war, Kruger may well not have turned out to be the revered hero he is regarded as today. There would undoubtedly have been a commission of enquiry and demand that he be impeached, had the war not taken place.

Why does the past look so familiar to the present and why do we not make an issue of it?

The list of governance mishaps during the Kruger and Rhodes era is long, but highlighting the above serves the point – democracies do not guarantee protection from the exploitation of power.

Our view of corruption is influenced a great deal by our racial prejudices. The conviction that only certain shades of people are more prone to corruption than others is just racist and delusional.

It is exactly the sort of conviction and prejudice that weakens our guard and sense of vigilance. The problem with power is that it has the dexterity to be innovative in preserving itself and creating a patron-client relationship that those employable by it become servile to its will. This is how it survives.

In South Africa, its pervasive nature is usually hidden by the way corruption is associated with particular races or plays itself out through racial stereotyping.

Only by breaking through our prejudices and predilection to judge things in racial terms will we create true democracy and effective checks and balances against the abuse of power.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Rory Short
29 Nov


It seems Rhodes did not become corrupt through power. He sought power in order to better serve his already corrupt ends.

The reality is that those who are already self serving and corrupt seek to gain access to the levers of power in order to better serve their own interests. Such people are not really interested in serving the people's interests.

Another reality is that such people are generally more avid seekers for political office than other people are. Consequently the political offices in any society are likely to be well populated with such people.

This means that the price of freedom in any society is eternal vigilance.

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