Monday, September 26, 2011

Budgeting for corruption

26 September, 2011

On Friday a colleague of mine went to take her driver's test. She failed, and it was not the first time - this was her fifth attempt.

Even before she got in the driver's seat her instructor told her she would have to pay a bribe to the testing official if she wanted to pass. He said this not because she was an incompetent driver or unprepared for the test. He told her this because it was just what she had to do - for her to pass the test, money needed to change hands.

Everyone makes jokes about the driver's test in South Africa. "Pay the bribe," we all joked with her beforehand.

The dilemma for her, a 23-year-old who has worked very hard to be where she is and is starting the arduous task of building her life, is that she is being told that, to get anywhere, she has to make peace with the fact that she has to pay a bribe. Someone who has honestly passed her university examinations is now being told that outside that world things work differently. She has to pay a bribe. She has to be corrupt.

How many young people are learning this devastating lesson about our country? How many young people are now facing the reality that hard work and honesty are not enough - that to get ahead one has to pay a bribe, bend the rules, be dishonest?

We all speak about corruption as though it is something that happens out there, to people we do not know. Corruption is now eating into the marrow of our being. It is becoming an everyday fact.

On Friday I gave a talk for 45 minutes on the political situation in South Africa. Afterwards, in conversation with one of the people who had attended, I realised that I had not even referred to corruption in my talk.

I realised that my omission was because of a simple yet devastating fact: I am beginning to think that corruption is normal - part of the South African way of life and therefore not even worth a proper mention and analysis.

Yet corruption is endemic. Most of my friends from elsewhere in Africa like to ask me if I want a "cold drink". It is their joke about South African policemen and women: every time my friends get stopped for some spurious reason, the policeman invariably asks for a "cold drink" to make whatever may be the problem go away.

The corruption problem is unlikely to go away. If anything, South African authorities are working hard to give the impression that crime pays and corruption will not be punished. The government continues to move with incredible slowness on some of the issues about which it should really be energetic.

Clear-cut cases of corruption are the Pretoria and Durban police-buildings lease deals. Various government officials, such as the suspended director-general of the Department of Public Works, have said they were essentially forced to sign the deals. Legal warnings not to sign the deals were ignored.

But the wheels of government have moved extremely slowly in dealing with this issue. Members of parliament - the "representatives of the people" - have even blocked opposition parties from asking the president questions about what he intends to do about these deals.

It is understandable that President Jacob Zuma has launched another inquiry into national police commissioner Bheki Cele's role in these deals because he has to act within the confines of the Police Act. But he is not so circumscribed with regard to Minister of Public Works Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde. He can fire her today. He can fire Minister of Co-operative Governance Sicelo Shiceka, who allegedly used taxpayers' money to visit a girlfriend in jail in Switzerland, today as well.

But Zuma has not done so. What message does that send? It says that we do not consider these transgressions and alleged acts of corruption to be serious and that, crucially, there will be no punishment.

In government work we see friends and relatives of powerful politicians become the beneficiaries of state tenders. The rest of the population has to pay a percentage of what they make on tenders to government officials or politicians.

This has now become the norm. We budget for corruption. It sits cheek by jowl with the rest of our life. It does not make us angry; we do not even mention it. It is just there and outrage is useless.

We watch our politicians battling for position and we point at those moving into new, big offices and say, admiringly: "It is his turn to eat."
We forget that it is the wealth and future of our friends, our children, of us as taxpayers, that is being eaten away by the corrupt.

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