By Balt Verhagen
In Who am I? Kopano Matlwa Mabaso chronicles her hopes and bitter disappointments since 1998 when she started high school. This prompted me, a person three times her age, to recount some of my own experiences during the same period when “we were well settled into our new democracy”.
Around 1998 I had the privilege of engaging in a series of en-passant discussions with a very bright young black PhD student. The topics varied and I was repeatedly taken with his wide background and critical analysis on politics — a word that in South Africa has always had, and still has, such negative connotations. During one of these animated exchanges, I ventured my grave misgivings about the rapid growth of corruption in post-liberation South Africa. I was as yet unaware of the nascent scandal that the now notorious arms deal, at that very time being negotiated, would develop into. My concern was based simply on the growing stream of reports in the media four years into the new dispensation. He took my remarks lightly. “Surely,” he said, “that means simply that we are growing up, that we are already changing from having a liberation government to becoming a more normal society. Look at France, look at the United States.”
Not really having analysed the issue before, I was confronted abruptly with the need to formulate my own intuitive misgivings. My answer ran something like this: “Of course you are right. Corruption is a worldwide phenomenon, even in my native country Holland, for all its image of being squeaky clean. But, and this is a very important ‘but’, you are comparing South Africa with countries that boast centuries of democratic and legal tradition, with massive infrastructure, deeply-embedded institutions, long-standing social contracts and cohesion, and a generally affluent population providing a considerable and wide tax base. These societies can take a lot of punishment and yet not show significant damage. We are at the very beginning of building such a society. We simply cannot afford such anti-social behaviour.”
I continued: “Our institutions are as yet,” and I held up my thumb and index finger close to each other, “paper-thin. Corruption will start tearing at them and may gravely damage our nascent structures and who knows whether we will ever be able to rebuild them.” As far as I can recall, we did not pursue the matter at the time.
My young interlocutor went on to a brilliant academic and management career in science and we did not meet again for several years. In about 2003 I caught a glimpse of him passing my open office door. He had come to see his former supervisor who had an office further down the passage. He must also have seen me at my desk, for a moment later he peeked around the door, smiled, waved and held up his hand with thumb and index finger slightly apart, and mouthed, “Paper thin.” About five years down the line he had acknowledged my warning. At that time, the enormity of the corruption surrounding the arms deal was being aired in the press almost daily, along with a slew of other distressing revelations. It was the period of denialism on a number of fronts, with embedded commissions repeatedly whitewashing the situation. I would imagine that the eyes of many were opening at that time and some courageous individuals had begun to chip away doggedly at the edifice of lies and deceit.
Now, nine years later, the presidency, administration and a dismayed populace are having to face the massive damage that corruption has indeed inflicted on just about every sphere of national life: the judiciary, the criminal justice system, police, education, health, social services, infrastructural development. Our literacy rate and life expectancy have declined, unemployment and poverty are on the increase, and it is estimated that the government loses about R30-billion per annum to corruption and maladministration. In constantly exposing these issues, the media now has to face the curtailment of their much vaunted and constitutionally guaranteed freedom.
Even government finally has to acknowledge this damage. At last the Public Protector is showing teeth, some heads have rolled, and we now have Corruption Watch which will enable class actions by aggrieved communities. Welcome though these measures are, we cannot ignore the fact that corruption in one form or another has become almost a way of everyday life, that large numbers of those with power and influence, the very people we look to for tackling the problem, are now tainted. Our very moral foundations have been shaken.
Fourteen years after my conversations with that young man, I take little pride in being vindicated. Undoubtedly there were scores of others like me, but too few of us raised our heads above the parapets when it counted. We could sense the danger but were stunned by the fact that it was actually happening to us, that the liberation movement had become so “normal”, so quickly. We were stung by the “we told you so” of apartheid apologists. As white people we felt that is was presumptuous to criticise the liberators, or, as in apartheid times, to let “them” mess things up as long as we live well. And many black people, to this day, cannot shake off their sense of loyalty in spite of being the worst victims of, in Kopano’s poignant words, “those ugly things we do not like to think about, but should”.
I would suggest that we — all of us — should not just think of these things, but collectively — and individually — take responsibility for them.
Balt Verhagen is an academic and researcher, now largely retired.