Sunday Times: ‘Can we fight corruption in a world that’s built on greed?’

Khayelitsha, Cape Town
South Africa is one of the world's most unequal societies: Shacks in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, where many residents still do not have toilets in this supposedly world-class city

Published in the Sunday Times, 8 August 2010

The only way to stop the rot is to create a fair society

Man, are we ever in a stew over corruption. The issue is in the news every day, bloggers have launched an online reporting initiative called the Meerkat Corruption Project, newspapers are beefing up their investigative units… and it might all be pointless.

We shouldn’t feel too insecure about our corruption in comparison to some other nations. The United States Congress is a filthy stew of special interests that makes a mockery of “We, the people” and compromises not just the interests and wellbeing of ordinary Americans, but of the whole world. US warmongering is a murderous subsidy system for the military-industrial complex; US climate imperialism threatens the entire human race to preserve the pollution “rights” of American fossil fuel interests. (Obama’s leading economic adviser, Larry Summers, believes Africa is “under-polluted”.)

No bill passes Congress these days without being laden with appropriations called “earmarks”, really payoffs to the favourite special interests of individual legislators. Corrupt US legislators are currently refusing to pass legislation either to ease US unemployment or to reduce the universal threat of climate change.

So the US is hardly less corrupt than we are, but its rulers are better at corruption: they’ve written it into law and spin it well. So too, to a good degree, the British. Tony Blair supported the illegal Iraq war, blocked enquiries into dodgy arms deals, and appears to have released the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in order to secure access to Libyan oil for BP. No envelopes of cash need have changed hands for us to call this corrupt.

But struggling young democracies should not or seek find consolation in the failures of the old. Rather, we need to ask deeper questions about the real roots of corruption in our society.

The comparison with the US and the UK is essential – because while we pay lip service to ubuntu, we are in fact a proud outpost of Anglo American-style capitalism.

The Eastern and European flavours of capitalism retain some respect for society, at least their own. But Anglo American capitalism has unique contempt for economic equality. And extreme and growing inequality, exploitation and elitism, the hallmarks of Anglo American capitalism, are the real roots of South African corruption.

We can investigate, publish and protest till the cows come home, we could double the numbers of our police force and prosecutors and investigative journalists – and perhaps we should – but we will not make a lasting dent in the corruption problem until we commit ourselves to becoming a fair society. For in an unfair society, the naked self-interest we call corruption is in fact quite rational. If society does not offer us security, and ours does not, we will always try to seize it for ourselves.

The great magic of the World Cup at its best was that for a few weeks, we had a glimpse of what a more generous, trusting society would be like. Surely at least 90% of us would like to create that society? What do we need to do?

“Society and the world will change when political and economic leaders develop a genuine spirit of gratitude and service toward the people,” writes the Buddhist Daisaku Ikeda. I suspect there are many in government and business who would like to have that spirit, but are caught up despite themselves in the materialism that disfigures our leaders.

We need far greater generosity on the part of the wealthy and powerful. Some German millionaires have recently been lobbying to be taxed more, as has Bill Gates. This is not an impulse that seems to move wealthy South Africans, for all that they love a bit of token social responsibility and a glitzy fundraiser.

Real social responsibility means spending on and strengthening the perennial social goods of health, education, public transport and justice: these must be far better funded by more progressive taxes. Our society cannot afford to prioritise spending on big polluting cars, second homes and an ocean of transient consumer goods.

As has often been suggested, South African lawmakers should be obliged to use the health and education services of which they are the stewards.

White South Africans need to question their continuing privilege and must cease sweeping discussions of national reconciliation under the rug.

Black-led local government must stop treating the poor with contempt and brutality: examples abound.

We need to ditch knee-jerk calls for economic growth, and start asking what kinds of growth we want.

Pay scales should be adjusted so that top executives never earn more than ten times what their least paid subordinates receive. This is hardly radical – it was the norm in most countries until 30 years ago.

Our media must also step up: it has only the shallowest sense of responsibility for social health. It has been described internationally as “right wing”, and justly so. This is not because journalists (when white) hanker after apartheid or are secret racists, but because the media as a whole promotes an environmentally and socially destructive bling consumerism, criticising conspicuous consumption in the corrupt and selfish while advertising it furiously.

South African media worship the interests of business over the interests of society. Just one example: the high priests we call corporate economists get to lead most strike reports, spouting indignantly over “losses to the economy”. But unjustly low wages and poor working conditions also cause economic losses, and the spouting is usually, really, about costs to business.

Politicians sense the hypocrisy of being called to account for corruption by a media that does not take deep responsibility for creating a better society. Little wonder there is now such bad blood between the media and political classes.

But creating a truly fair society is the responsibility of all of us. For all that we may be superficially nice to each other, one has only to spend time behind the wheel of a car to get a sense of South Africans’ real mutual contempt. A fair and honest society will begin with respect, and with all of us taking less and giving more.


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I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.

3 thoughts on “Sunday Times: ‘Can we fight corruption in a world that’s built on greed?’”

  1. Great article! I look forward to seeing what response it generates in the letters page. On your suggestion that “pay scales should be adjusted so that top executives never earn more than ten times what their least paid subordinates receive” I think there would be merit if we tracked the internal corporate gini coefficient (eg since ’94) and compared that against the national equivalent. And perhaps its time to start reporting on certain sectors and companies? And yes perhaps its time to start calling some in the (business) media to account….

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