The ba­nal­ity of cor­rup­tion

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Euse­bius McKaiser

There’s a cheesy say­ing I like be­cause it con­tains a grain of truth. Ap­par­ently one should “judge a per­son not by their ac­tions, but by their ev­ery re­ac­tion”. The say­ing is a lit­tle in­el­e­gant in this pithy for­mu­la­tion, but the core in­sight is easy to un­ravel.

When we act de­lib­er­ately, with the ben­e­fit of plan­ning and care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of the con­se­quences that might flow from each dif­fer­ent ac­tion open to us, we are able to skil­fully mask bad in­ten­tions, char­ac­ter flaws, shame­ful habits and even deeply held be­liefs we do not wish to re­veal to oth­ers. We can strate­gise.

That isn’t a bad thing. The world is com­plex. The abil­ity to game your way through in­ter­views, the world of work, so­cial spa­ces and, gen­er­ally, to be a rea­son­ably well-ad­justed hu­man be­ing in a het­ero­ge­neous so­ci­ety, some­times re­quires the abil­ity to hold back be­fore act­ing or speak­ing, to think long and hard, and then de­cide what is in your pru­den­tial in­ter­est to do or say.

What is very cool, how­ever, about be­ing caught off guard, at other times, is that so­ci­ety some­times gets a chance to see who we truly are be­cause our un­con­scious be­hav­iour can re­veal a well of use­ful ev­i­dence about our in­ten­tions, char­ac­ter, habits and be­liefs.

Ob­vi­ously there are ex­cep­tions. Un­con­scious ac­tions do not al­ways re­veal our in­ner­most core. That is why we have phrases in everyday com­mu­ni­ca­tion such as “be­hav­ing out of char­ac­ter”. We can­not here ex­plore fully when un­con­scious be­hav­iour should not be re­garded as re­veal­ing. Suf­fice to say that, gen­er­ally speak­ing, how we be­have when we let our guard down can be a win- dow into our true selves. That hap­pens when we “re­act” to un­planned events.

The point is that, when we are tested and have lit­tle chance to chore­o­graph our re­sponses, we might in­ad­ver­tently show off parts of our hid­den self.

Which brings me to the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Just Coal, Joe Singh. About two weeks ago this man ad­mit­ted to me on my ra­dio show, in a live in­ter­view, that he had, in fact, given R500000 to the ANC Youth League with the ex­plicit in­ten­tion that the league, mo­ti­vated by this gift, may suc­cess­fully se­cure the con­tin­u­a­tion of a multi­bil­lion-rand coal sup­ply con­tract with Eskom.

I asked the ques­tion more than once, in what was a fairly long in­ter­view, pre­cisely be­cause I wanted to make sure he was not mis­tak­enly re­veal­ing to us some­thing that is false about him­self. I also wanted to en­sure that he was not mis­un­der­stand­ing the mean­ing of the words in the ques­tions I was putting to him.

He un­der­stood. He re­peated the fact that he ex­plic­itly thought that the league had ac­cess to the ear of the act­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive of Eskom, Mat­shela Koko, and he ex­plic­itly told us that he had hoped the league would suc­cess­fully per­suade Koko not to stop a con­trac­tual re­la­tion­ship be­tween Just Coal and Eskom.

It is patently ob­vi­ous that Singh was ad­mit­ting to grossly un­eth­i­cal busi­ness prac­tice. Most lawyers who are ex­perts in crim­i­nal law I have sub­se­quently spo­ken to also think it is clear, based on the au­dio of the in­ter­view that I shared with them, that Singh is a text­book ex­am­ple of some­one who, in­ad­ver­tently, con­fessed to fall­ing foul of the Pre­ven­tion and Com­bat­ing of Cor­rupt Ac­tiv­i­ties Act.

Here is the in­ter­est­ing bit: Singh was ut­terly un­fazed by his own ad­mis­sion. He was non­cha­lant. He was even jovial with my pro­ducer af­ter the in­ter­view. He ap­peared, un­til he saw tweets to the con­trary, com­pletely obliv­i­ous to what he had just ad­mit­ted to on live ra­dio.

So what hap­pened here? Did he mis­s­peak? Was he act­ing “out of char­ac­ter” dur­ing this ex­change? I doubt it. He is a very suc­cess­ful per­son who has ad­e­quate prac­ti­cal in­tel­li­gence and the skill set to ne­go­ti­ate the com­plex, com­pet­i­tive world of busi­ness. He is no fool.

The truth, I think, is that Singh was not act­ing de­lib­er­ately. His re­sponses were not the re­sult of care­ful prior plan­ning, hav­ing strate­gised how we would ne­go­ti­ate the in­ter­view. This was not de­lib­er­ate be­hav­iour based on pro­fes­sional ad­vice from a sea­soned spin doc­tor or the com­pany’s head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Singh let his guard down. He was re­laxed. He was, rather than act­ing and gam­ing, sim­ply re­act­ing al­most un­think­ingly to my ques­tions. These kinds of re­ac­tions are great be­cause, un­like re­hearsed state­ments read out at a press con­fer­ence, real-time re­ac­tions tell us who we are deal­ing with. It re­quires enor­mous skill, when you are un­der fire, not to give the pub­lic a glimpse of your true self.

Singh did us a favour by re­veal­ing him­self. In the process, he showed him­self to be yet another South African who rou­tinely en­gages in cor­rupt ac­tiv­i­ties. He drew us into his shad­owy world and showed it off, ac­ci­den­tally. These un­eth­i­cal busi­ness prac­tices are so ba­nal and com­mon­place in Singh’s world that ob­vi­ously his re­ac­tions to my ques­tions could not strike him as im­pru­dent. Cor­rup­tion hap­pens rou­tinely in Singh’s world, and is the norm. Such is the ba­nal truth about everyday cor­rup­tion in the Re­pub­lic of Gupta.

It re­quires enor­mous skill, when you are un­der fire, not to give the pub­lic a glimpse of your true self

Im­mu­nity: South Africa’s politi­cians are so used to cor­rup­tion that they don’t even re­alise when they’re do­ing it. Photo: Made­lene Cronjé

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