Ideas Matter | Serious mind-shift needed to address corruption

Much metaphorical ink has been spilled in discussing and analysing South Africa's decade of corruption and devastation – also known as state capture. The Zondo Commission, which began hearing evidence in August 2018, is still underway, providing a platform for politicians, bureaucrats, businesspeople and others to come forward and present their sides of the story. For some participants – and many South African citizens – the process will prove to be important as a way of vesting responsibility for all the damage that was done, and catharsis to air one of democratic South Africa's worst periods. But if necessary lessons aren't learned, it may well prove fruitless.

Transparency International's 2020 Corruptions Perception Index ranked South Africa at 69 out of 180 countries. On a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being most corrupt and 100 being clean, we scored 44; slightly better than the average of 43. Sub-Saharan Africa's average of 32 places it as the lowest performing region on the Index.

When one considers the link between high levels of corruption on the one hand, and ineffective governance and an anti-business environment on the other, it makes sense that those countries and regions with lower scores are also those where citizens have a lower quality of life and a lower chance to create wealth for themselves, their families, and communities.

The Heritage Foundation's 2021
Index of Economic Freedom ranked South Africa at 99th – part of the 'mostly unfree' category of countries. As the size and role of government has grown, so too has the line between politics and economics become blurred. No economic activity may be conducted without some approval, licence or permit from a government official. In addition to dissuading individuals from trying to start and grow businesses, the continued mixing of politics and economics has ensured an increasing sense of desperation and hopelessness for many citizens. And with fewer avenues open for creating individual wealth, who you know has become all the more important.

It is vital to understand the importance of ideology – a system of ideas – on the particular manner in which a political party believes it should exercise political power. South Africa's ruling party adheres to the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), according to which the party should attain political power and use that power to change and shape society according to the demands of the Revolution. The NDR demands ever more power for the state, over all aspects of the economy and society. Further, where the state does not yet have sufficient power to shape things, it needs to be expanded. South Africans are therefore at the mercy of an ideology that demands a bigger state apparatus – which suffocates truly radical economic activity and growth – and the continuing mixing of state (politics) and economics.

The ongoing politicisation of government's administrative capacities raises the stakes in terms of which business can win the required tender, or which individual has ingratiated themselves enough with the relevant minister. 
Government functions should be limited and funded by tax revenue, taken account of in a transparent and easily accessible manner, and the numerous avenues open for corrupt corporates to take advantage of political power closed down.

The rule of law, properly understood, means all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law, and if you break the law, you should be held to account. The state capture saga has exposed to just what an extent the rule of law has been undermined in South Africa. If you have the necessary political connections, you are, in some ways, above the law. The breakdown of the rule of law is not merely a phenomenon to be consigned to academic discussions; it has a very real effect on citizens' lives, as resources intended for the provision and improvement of public services is instead used to enrich the well-connected.

While appearing before the Zondo Commission in April, President Ramaphosa attempted to provide a measure of apology for the role the African National Congress has played in state capture, and unfortunately "lapses" and "delays" had meant the party hadn't moved as quickly as he would have liked in terms of tackling corruption. It should never be presumed that removing one political party will in itself be enough to eliminate corruption completely; for as long as the wrong institutional structures and political incentives are in place, and the only way for people to get ahead is by being involved in politics, corrupt individuals will be attracted to government.

Addressing corruption effectively requires more than establishing commissions or appointing the 'right people'. To dissuade people from corrupt activities in the future one must understand, and then change, the relevant incentives. This means getting rid of ideologies of envy and control and embracing ideologies of wealth-creation and freedom.

This article was first published on City Press on 18 May 2021.

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