Friday, July 26, 2013

Out Damned Spot.

I have had my share of dealing with large government tenders.  It is a hell of a process and it would, in my experience, require an enormous amount of collusion to get round or to manipulate in favour of one or other particular company.  That it can happen, and does happen, is undeniable.  But what is clear from the recent price fixing revelations of the major construction firms involved in the bids for the 2010 soccer infrastructure tenders, is that they recognised this – and sought a more reliable and more effective way of beating the system.  Price-fixing only requires the collusion of others who stand to benefit in the industry – not rogue government officials.  That is why it is, generally, such a reliable mechanism for corruption.

I once, in casual discussion with a relative of mine who was high up in the business stratosphere, asked him why it was, in his opinion, that I had never been asked by anyone to manipulate a tender. In all the years I have worked in government, I have never been approached by anyone in business, to do anything. I found this strange, because frankly, in some of the large tenders I have handled, I had been expecting it.  But nothing! Not a knock on a door.  Not the offer of a holiday in France. No cars, no shopping vouchers, no houses, no expensive suits, no Rolex watches. Every year, I have filled in my disclosure of interest forms, disclosing the paltry fact that I own one serious debt - my house, and nothing else. No shares, no gratuities, no gifts over R300. I am director of no companies.  It is a fairly depressing disclosure, to be sure.

My relative looked at me amused – (actually it was worse.  He looked at me as though he had suddenly come to understand just how stupid I really am).  “Michael”, he said wearily, “do you not know that in every serious business, there is a whole unit which is dedicated to profiling people like you.  They will have done a detailed scan on you and come up with the fact that you would probably have too many difficulties with an offer.  So they look for other more likely candidates”. I was scandalised.  His quizzical look turned to unabashed pity (verging on disdain) at my naivety.

So, “corruption” is very much a word bandied about today, as if the ANC has invented it.  But if we are in the least bit honest, we will admit that corruption is much bigger, much deeper, much wider, much more endemic to our society than being simply an ANC or government problem. To characterize it as such is really not to understand the nature of the problem. It is a problem which reaches back far into the country's nationalist part, where corruption was pervasive, state enabled and unchallenged. Those same nationalist politicians, in close alliance with big business and multinational companies, simply carried over their corrupt practices, virtually unchanged, into the democratic era -  but now enabled, where it has succeeded, by black and government (by which I mean the whole span of government, from ANC to DA) support, either explicit or implicit.

I have certainly had personal experience of less than savoury demands made by non- ANC politicians, who happened to be my political heads at the time. On the scale of things, the demands made on me were minuscule and did not succeed, because of the tight prescripts of the Public Service Management Act.  On the other hand (and let me say this clearly) in all my years of government, I have never had any similar demands made on me by ANC politicians, nor have I witnessed anything personally, amongst the senior officials I have worked with which could be termed corrupt behavior. I am merely making the point that the ANC does not own the sole rights to corruption, nor is it the only party which can be corrupt.  Nor would I want to ignore blatent cases of corruption where the ANC is involved.

I agree completely with the assertion that corruption is key to the attainment of justice in our society, but I would urge that we don't get sucked into the easy and comfortable analysis that this is merely an ANC problem. Get rid of the ANC, I sometimes hear, and corruption will miraculously vanish, day will dawn, birds will sing overhead, rainbows will form in the sky.  I don’t think so.  The ANC has no monopoly on corruption in our society.

Clearly, yes, it is a government problem, but it is also very obviously a private sector problem as well. And even more than that, it is a problem which involves every citizen. It involves every one of us when we pay a bribe, because we are in a hurry. It involves us when we grease a deal. It involves us when we make a call to a friend or relative in a government department, who can fast-track a decision, or tweak an employment process. It is about feeding the demand.  These are the ways in which corruption is fed and sustained. 

Corruption is a state of the collective mind.  It cannot happen in insolation.  It requires two to tango. It cannot happen only somewhere else – with others – over there somewhere.  If you think about it, hard enough, you will likely start to see how uncomfortably close a thing it is, to all of us. And if we do that, and if we are honest, perhaps that might be the beginning of the end.

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