Cor­rup­tion that works

What if, in spite of the cor­rup­tion, things worked? It won’t make it right, but maybe okay, says XOLANI KHU­MALO

The Witness - Wheels - - INSIGHT -

INEVER thought I would write an ar­ti­cle with such a ti­tle: cor­rup­tion that works — an oxy­moron of note. But given the so­ci­ety we live in, given the state of our beloved South Africa, I find my­self hav­ing to adopt the po­si­tion of a spouse living and stay­ing in a re­la­tion­ship with an un­faith­ful part­ner.

In spite of her hus­band’s in­fi­deli­ties, she can still find it within her­self to say: “He’s not per­fect but at least he takes ‘ good’ care of me”.

To put it in a song, Joe Thomas had a song with the line “I used to think that pain was a part of hap­pi­ness …”

With a tail be­tween my legs, to­day I am the one who has to sit back and think: “Maybe I can still find hap­pi­ness in the midst of this pain.” I find my­self be­ing the one who has to con­cede: “De­spite th­ese stains and fad­ing colours, maybe I can still ap­pre­ci­ate the beau­ti­ful rain­bow in this na­tion.”

We live in a so­ci­ety that is marred by cor­rup­tion — from politi­cians to busi­ness to the or­di­nary cit­i­zen. We see it across racial lines, in the public and pri­vate sec­tor and across cul­tures. We see it across re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tions and within char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tions, we see cor­rup­tion in the church, among “saints”, even among cor­rup­tion watch­dogs. It is from this back­drop that I found my­self think­ing, de­spite all the cor­rup­tion, maybe things can still work. I ask my­self, what if, in spite of all the cor­rup­tion we see around us, things still worked? It won’t nec­es­sar­ily make it right, but maybe just okay.

WHAT IF?

In our beloved South Africa, what makes cor­rup­tion so preva­lent and so in our face is not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause there is too much of it, but more be­cause things do not work. And be­cause things do not work, we then raise our eye­brows and then learn that cor­rup­tion is at the root of the dys­func­tional state of af­fairs. But what if things worked? • What if Ja­cob Zuma was a great pres­i­dent — de­spite hav­ing spent R250 mil­lion on his own house? As I gasp for air. • What if our politi­cians re­ally worked and de­liv­ered ser­vices — de­spite driv­ing fancy cars and spend­ing R50 000 at Nando’s? • What if Khu­malo Trad­ing, af­ter get­ting the ten­der, ac­tu­ally went and built qual­ity roads and bridges, and de­liv­ered on time — de­spite hav­ing been awarded the ten­der ir­reg­u­larly? • What if the direc­tor- gen­eral’s son ac­tu­ally did a good job as the CFO of that in­sti­tu­tion — de­spite hav­ing got the job through nepo­tism? • What if the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem ac­tu­ally worked — de­spite all the po­lit­i­cal and labour- re­lated shenani­gans? • What if Eskom de­liv­ered sta­ble power — de­spite any in­stances of cor­rup­tion? • What if through BEE, cor­po­rates were ac­tu­ally in­tro­duced to prom­i­nent and cred­i­ble busi­ness part­ners — de­spite how the leg­is­la­tion is frowned upon by oth­ers. • What if those ap­pointed as AA/ EE can­di­dates ( and I’m not say­ing AA/ EE is cor­rup­tion) ac­tu­ally brought in a fresh per­spec­tive to what­ever jobs they were ap­pointed to?

Okay, I may be mis­in­ter­preted on the last two points on BEE and AA, so let me re­it­er­ate that I by no means in­fer that BEE and AA are cor­rupt, be­cause they are not. My point is that those who are against the pol­icy would be more re­cep­tive to it if it worked as ef­fec­tively as it was in­tended. Okay, let’s move on.

The ques­tion I’m try­ing to get to is what if things worked de­spite all the cor­rup­tion or al­le­ga­tions thereof? Can we have cor­rup­tion that works?

Apartheid was a very cor­rupt sys­tem, with po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic in­sti­tu­tions that favoured the mi­nor­ity to the detri­ment of the ma­jor­ity. But for its man­date at the time, the very cor­rupt and un­fair sys­tem ac­tu­ally worked. Which is why it is dif­fi­cult for those who were in that mi­nor­ity back then to say hon­estly they never ben­e­fited from the sys­tem, be­cause they did, one way or the other. So, as much as the sys­tem was cor­rupt, it worked. That is why it lasted for as long as it did. And that is why the af­ter- ef­fects can still be seen even to­day.

COR­RUP­TION DUR­ING APARTHEID

I have no doubt that even dur­ing apartheid, there were a lot of cor­rupt politi­cians. There was lots of cor­rup­tion in award­ing gov­ern­ment busi­ness. There was lots of nepo­tism when it came to fill­ing key posts, be it in the gov­ern­ment or pri­vate sec­tor. But hey, things worked ( for that mi­nor­ity at least). Hen­drik Ver­wo­erd ( and his suc­ces­sors) may not have built them­selves a R250 mil­lion house from state cof­fers, but I reckon their in­di­vid­ual com­pre­hen­sive benefits un­der the sys­tem would ri­val this fig­ure.

Post- apartheid, the new po­lit­i­cal regime in­tro­duced us, or rather was sup­posed to in­tro­duce us, to a new po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sys­tem that was in­clu­sive ( as op­posed to ex­clu­sive and ex­trac­tive). De­spite this noble man­date, the sys­tem and the regime as a whole have been marred by cor­rup­tion ( or al­le­ga­tions thereof), nepo­tism and ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties, etc. Just like the apartheid sys­tem was. But now, the dif­fer­ence here is that the cor­rup­tion in this case is com­pro­mis­ing the sys­tem as a whole, al­most ren­der­ing it dys­func­tional. Now we are rais­ing ques­tions and we want an­other change of regime.

You see, when things work, we are more likely to keep our heads down and go on with our busi­ness. But when things are not work­ing, then we raise our eyes and start ques­tion­ing, so cor­rup­tion is ex­posed. When­ever I hear of ser­vice- de­liv­ery protests, it’s not be­cause the com­mu­ni­ties are com­plain­ing of cor­rup­tion or nepo­tism, but al­most al­ways be­cause things are not work­ing. Only then do they start to ques­tion key ap­point­ments and the award­ing of con­tracts. But if things were work­ing, the com­mu­ni­ties would most likely just keep on with their daily ac­tiv­i­ties with­out ask­ing ques­tions.

MAKE THINGS WORK

To make an­other typ­i­cal ex­am­ple: the cor­rup- tion around the build­ing of the 2010 sta­dia in the coun­try. Yes, the con­struc­tion com­pa­nies col­luded cor­ruptly to in­flate prices, ef­fec­tively steal­ing from the state ( I’m sure one of th­ese days Juju will show up at their AGM and de­mand that they pay back the money).

But guess what, in spite of that el­e­ment of cor­rup­tion, they ac­tu­ally built the sta­dia, ac­cord­ing to spec­i­fi­ca­tions, on time and did a good job. If the sta­dia had not been com­pleted on time or they were al­ready fall­ing apart be­cause of shoddy ser­vice, then we both know this would be more of an is­sue that it is now. But things worked, de­spite the cor­rup­tion. I am most cer­tain there are a count­less num­ber of such cases of cor­rup­tion, but of­ten they don’t even sur­face when things work.

Some­times I won­der if our big­gest prob­lem as a so­ci­ety is cor­rup­tion or in­com­pe­tence or lack of pa­tri­o­tism or just no sense of good ser­vice at all, or a com­bi­na­tion of the above.

I’d like to make an ap­peal that we make things work; we must work. Even the Bi­ble states clearly: what­ever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.

If you get ap­pointed onto a board of a public in­sti­tu­tion, even if it’s be­cause you’re the min­is­ter’s cousin, the least you can do is be an ef­fec­tive mem­ber of the board and make a dif­fer­ence. If you get pref­er­ence over other can­di­dates and get a par­tic­u­lar job ( be­cause of your race or gen­der or who you know), the least you can do is work hard and dili­gently in that job.

If you get voted as pres­i­dent of the coun­try, no mat­ter un­der what cloud, the least you can do is be a good pres­i­dent nonethe­less. If you are elected to be a mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, no mat­ter how un­fair and non- trans­par­ent the process, the least you can do is treat our Par­lia­ment with dig­nity.

If you get awarded a ten­der to build low- cost houses, even if it’s an ir­reg­u­larly awarded con­tract, the least you can do is ac­tu­ally de­liver good- qual­ity houses on time ( don’t rush off to buy a Range Rover be­fore you’ve even started the project).

If you get a multi­bil­lion rand con­tract to build a power sta­tion, no mat­ter the kick­backs in­volved, the least you can do is ac­tu­ally build the power sta­tion and give the peo­ple re­li­able elec­tric­ity sup­ply on time and within bud­get. That is what I call “cor­rup­tion that works”. Maybe world­wide all politi­cians, all gov­ern­ments and most cor­po­rates are cor­rupt in one way or the other. But, most do work nonethe­less.

Let us also have things work­ing, de­spite and in spite of the preva­lent cor­rup­tion.

• Xolani Khu­malo is a char­tered ac­coun­tant by pro­fes­sion, in­vest­ment banker by oc­cu­pa­tion and writer by pas­sion.

“I have no doubt that even dur­ing apartheid, there were a lot of cor­rupt politi­cians. There was lots of cor­rup­tion in award­ing gov­ern­ment busi­ness. There was lots of nepo­tism when it came to fill­ing key posts, be it in gov­ern­ment or pri­vate sec­tor. But hey, things worked ( for that mi­nor­ity at least). Hen­drik Ver­wo­erd ( and his suc­ces­sors) may not have built them­selves a R250 mil­lion house from state cof­fers, but I reckon their in­di­vid­ual com­pre­hen­sive benefits un­der the sys­tem would ri­val this fig­ure.”

PHOTO: SUP­PLIED

Dur­ban’s Moses Mab­hida Sta­dium. De­spite the fact that con­struc­tion com­pa­nies col­luded cor­ruptly to in­flate prices of build­ing the sta­dia for the Soc­cer World Cup, they ac­tu­ally built them, ac­cord­ing to spec­i­fi­ca­tions, on time and did a good job.

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