By Advocate Thuli Madonsela
Mafia tendencies regarding accountability for grand-scale corruption, including state capture, are on the rise. In the movie The Godfather, there is a scene where Michael Corleone tells his brother Alfredo: “I love you – but don’t ever take sides against the family.”
It seems to me that some of those who are implicated in state capture or other corruption are pushing this public narrative to earn themselves impunity.
I first got a sense of this impunity paradigm as I faced a backlash in response to the Against the Rules Public Protector reports on SA Police Service office leases. The reports resulted in former president Jacob Zuma relieving then police commissioner Bheki Cele of his duties.
I understood “family” in this context to mean fellow former liberation struggle veterans. My response, at a speech delivered at the Tshwane University of Technology shortly thereafter, was to point out that I also understood it to mean: “We aren’t the mafia.”
The mafia paradigm regarding accountability for alleged and even proven corruption in respect of public power and theft of public funds seems to be rising. Simply put, corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain, as defined by Transparency International.
In government, the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain includes taking or giving bribes or any other gratification, including political positions and other benefits or privileges at the public’s expense, which are not authorised by law or policy in exchange for personal favours that involve some dishonest exercise of public power.
Since the hiring of the Bell Pottinger public relations firm by Zuma’s son Duduzane and the Gupta brothers to help launder South Africa’s public image that was soiled by state capture and related corrupt exercises of state power and control of public resources, those clamouring for impunity have expanded their reach beyond camaraderie. This is understandable, as the Guptas cannot claim struggle credentials.
The key message I see daily on my Twitter timeline, from those still sulking over the fact that I ordered the state capture commission, which recently released its final report, is that holding fellow black people accountable for corruption, including state capture, is a betrayal of them.
Paradoxical, is it not? If you agree that corruption is an injustice to those denied opportunities that unlawfully go to the corrupt, then you must agree that it is defence of the corrupt that is a betrayal of the people, particularly poor ones.
This was my message to the Pavocat Stellenbosch Academy’s Counter-Corruption Summit held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study on Wednesday.
There was consensus among the key conference speakers, who included Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, Constitutional Court Justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga, chairperson of the National Assembly’s standing committee on public accounts Mkhuleko Hlengwa, the World Bank Group’s integrity vice-president Sam Bwana and various civil society leaders, that poor people bore the brunt of corruption, no matter what form it took.
It does not matter whether corruption concerns the state procurement system (where it excessively escalates the cost of procuring public services and goods, in addition to weakening public service delivery through providing inferior goods and services, compounded by impunity due to vested interests among those meant to ensure that service delivery guardrails are complied with) or whether it is retail corruption, such as the bribing of traffic officers, court clerks, the police and home affairs officers to obtain undeserved benefits or evade accountability. Corruption is corruption.
In the preamble to the UN Convention against Corruption, erstwhile UN secretary-general Kofi Annan lamented the fact that corruption hurt the poor disproportionately.
The quotation I reproduced from his preambulary remarks reads: “Corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies. It undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life, and allows organised crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish. This evil phenomenon is found in all countries – big and small, rich and poor – but it is in the developing world that its effects are most destructive.”
In South Africa, where the long shadow of apartheid dictates an intersection between blackness and poverty, most of the poor who suffer because of corruption are black people.
According to Stats SA, although poverty across all racial categories was at 55.5% just before the advent of Covid-19, it was 1% among white people, 41% among coloured people, 6% among Indian and Asian people, and 64.2% among (indigenous) African people.
If it were not tragic, it would be funny that the interests of the primary victims of corruption are leveraged by those implicated in state capture and other looting of public funds to demand impunity for corruption by harnessing identity-based solidarity.
The parallels between such demands for impunity on account of shared blackness or struggle credentials and the claims of the pigs in George Orwell’s classic novel, Animal Farm, are stark.
In Animal Farm, like our Constitution – which promises social justice, anchored in the right to equality for all – the liberated community of animals subscribes to a set of principles that includes: “All animals are equal.”
In the darkness of the night, the pigs – following their leader Napoleon, who played a central role in their liberation struggle, surreptitiously add “…but some are more equal than others”. Pretty soon, pigs eat the best food and enjoy the lifestyle they once impugned as bourgeois and unacceptable for animals.
As in Animal Farm, those defending state capture have appropriated to themselves the label of being the sole representatives of all black people, particularly the poor, despite living in unconscionable opulence at the expense of this very demographic.
Not only is it a clear case of “talk left and walk right”, but – when held to account – their response could be summarised as: “We’re eating for you.” In Animal Farm, conscientious pigs such as Snowball are delegitimised by those who brand them as traitors in the pay of former oppressors: human beings. In the state capture defence scenario, those championing corruption accountability are branded agents of white monopoly capital: sell-outs.
Interestingly, this is a continuation of the Bell Pottinger campaign unleashed as a dead cat strategy to stop or undermine the Public Protector’s investigation into alleged state capture at the beginning of 2016.
The recent state capture defence narrative has added the argument that the corruption entailed in state capture should be ignored because it is minuscule compared with contracts in the hands of white business, including the so-called evergreen state contracts.
Even if we get past evidence regarding how the bulk of those contracts were acquired, what defies logic is the suggestion that there should be no accountability for corruption and looting now because those involved are fellow black people and the amounts involved are comparatively tiny.
Among these are black people aspiring to public office – where, on assuming their duties, they would have to swear to uphold the Constitution. That Constitution unambiguously commits to transforming our society into a rule-of-law society based on democratic values, social justice and unspoken rule is that you never go against the family?
—Professor Madonsela is former Public Protector of SA, Law Trust chair in Social and Justice at Stellenbosch University