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Publication Details

Reference
Nyar, Annsilla  (2007) A Culture of graft has taken hold. The Mercury : -.

Summary
The problem of corruption in the public sector must be addressed before it becomes systemic, writes Annsilla Nyar

One of the most telling statements made by an unrepentant Tony Yengeni
upon his release from Malmesbury Prison earlier this month was the
contention that "the problem in this country is not me, it is not Zuma".

"The problem is not Mbeki, the problem we are facing is poverty.
Ninety-nine percent of the economy is in 5% of the population's hands."

Ironically, he stated this just before television cameras showed him
being whisked away in a luxury black Mercedes-Benz.

You may then well ask if South Africa's problem is really just about
poverty.

Actually, the problem is that corruption contributes to poverty, a fact
which may well be difficult to see from the tinted windows of a
Mercedes- Benz.

Indeed, South Africa continues to be one of the poorest and most unequal
societies in the world and recent data shows that poverty and inequality
are increasing.

For the majority of South Africans, it is poverty and inequality which
are the most intractable and enduring elements in the legacy of
apartheid and one which ensures continued and, often, deepening hardship
for poor blacks.

But I would argue that the depressing picture of poverty and gross
inequality does not, in any way, give the full measure of "South
Africa's problem". The blame cannot be simply laid at the door of the
structural inequalities of the economy, gross and unjust as they are.

The fact remains that post- apartheid South Africa has developed a
serious culture of greed, corruption and impunity which in itself
constitutes a major problem in the path of desperately needed
development and transformation in the country.

Grease on public wheels appears to have become pretty much a fact of
life. In the early post-apartheid years, elite crime-busting units such
as the Heath Commission and the National Directorate of Public
Prosecutions created some sense of confidence that an overall sense of
integrity prevailed in the country. However, that sense of integrity is
now becoming buried under a cloud of public cynicism.

Abuse
We have elected politicians and parties on the expectation that they
will act in the public interest and, in doing so, we have given them
access to public resources and the power to take decisions that affect
our lives. But what we are seeing on an increasingly alarming scale is
the systematic and flagrant abuse of this highly privileged position,
which does a gross disservice to the cause of fighting poverty and
inequality.

The former ANC chief whip is a case in point. He was recently released
from prison after serving only four months of a four-year sentence for
fraud. He was convicted in 2003 for his failure to disclose a 47%
discount on a 4x4 Mercedes-Benz in relation to the controversial
multibillion-rand arms deal.

During his trial, in an astonishing act of hubris, Yengeni actually
wrote a letter to parliament requesting payment for his legal fees!

He was required to serve at least one sixth of his prison sentence,
which would be eight months. Instead, he was released into correctional
supervision after a short stay of only two months instead of the
required eight.

During his incarceration he was accused of several notable violations of
correctional regulations and procedures, such as the ban on alcohol
during parole.

More recently, he faced allegations of special privileges during the
festive season.

However, he was quickly cleared of all parole violations by a
correctional services inquiry and soon afterward left prison, as
remorseless as when he went in.

Ironically, Yengeni's replacement as chief whip, Mbulelo Goniwe, has
since been dismissed on charges of sexual harassment.

But the case of Yengeni is only one of a slew of public disgraces by
erring parliamentarians.

Take for example cleric, anti-apartheid activist and former ANC Western
Cape leader Allan Boesak.

He was jailed in 2000 for theft and fraud involving donor aid to his
organisation, Foundation for Peace and Justice. He led a comfortable
life in Malmesbury Prison for only a year of his three-year sentence,
until he was given a presidential pardon.

Last year South Africa was hit with its own Travelgate scandal involving
the fraudulent use of travel vouchers to the tune of up to R36 million
by parliamentarians. The vouchers were used to fund unofficial travel
expenses for accommodation, flights and car hire. In a few cases, they
were even used as invoices to trade for cash. Yet the thieving
parliamentarians in question have largely escaped prosecution, many
having brokered plea bargains in which the misappropriated funds are to
be paid back in instalments. Some have evaded any form of prosecution
altogether.

The uppermost echelons of South Africa's political hierarchy have had
their share of the spotlight.

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has been investigated and
absolved by the public protector's office.

She first made headlines in relation to the "Oilgate" scandal in which a
prominent oil businessman funded the ANC's 2004 election campaign with
an R11 million donation from parastastal company PetroSA.

Holiday
Last year she went on a taxpayer-funded holiday to Dubai with family and
friends to the tune of R700 000. Months later she chartered a South
African National Defence Force plane in Pretoria to attend a golf
tournament at the nearby Sun City resort.

Most recently, in the latest of what has become known as the "gravy
plane" scandals, the deputy president chartered a plane from a private
Swiss company to the tune of R4.4 million for an official trip to London.

If the plane had not broken down on the return leg of the journey,
taxpayers would have borne the brunt of that additional price tag of
several million rands more.

The fact is, South Africa's problem is not just poverty.

It is also the presence of systemic political corruption which is
actually intrinsically linked to poverty and underdevelopment. As
resources are siphoned off, the costs of doing business increase.

Corruption also gives free rein to firms and companies with political
connections as they are shielded from competition and can therefore be
less cost-conscious. Most importantly, corruption distorts the
allocation of resources towards projects or deals that can generate
lucrative payoffs.

The inevitable effect of this distortion is the aggravation of social
inequalities and the further impoverishment of the already poor and
marginalised.

Moreover, corruption, kickbacks, graft, whatever one wishes to call it,
is utterly antithetical to the spirit of development. Nothing is more
destructive to a society than the pursuit of an "easy buck" which makes
honest work for honest gains appear naive and stupid.

Noting of course that corruption is a horribly complex phenomenon. Its
insiduousness means that it is extremely difficult to eradicate, let
alone even mitigate the corrupt actions of local elites and local
economic giants.

Wherefore South Africa? As a relatively young democracy, we desperately
need to address the problem of corruption in our public sector before it
becomes systemic.

We need to hold our government accountable for the management of our
resources.

What we need is a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy that gives real
meaning to words like good governance, transparency and accountability
which are so often floated about in the public sector as popular concepts.



Annsilla Nyar is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Civil Society



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