Power Corrupts, but Power Without Status Corrupts Absolutely

corruption civil society government power
Wednesday, 2 October, 2013 - 09:12

This article discusses how status hungry public officials in South Africa affect the livelihoods of citizens, and the crucial role which civil society needs to take in the rule of law

“The total drain of corruption on South Africa’s economy is estimated in the hundreds of billions of rands per year or 10 percent to 25 percent of gross domestic products (GDP). Auditor-general reports of unauthorised, irregular, and fruitless / wasteful spending found roughly R15-billion in 2009 and R26-billion misspent today.” - As stated by a December 2011 paper, ‘The Cost of Public Corruption in Democratic South Africa’, by the Money and Politics Project of the Open Society Foundation (MAPP) for South Africa.
 
What could have been done with this R26 billion had it not been pilfered by corrupt officials? It could have doubled the annual incomes of 7 to 10 million South Africans living in severe poverty on less than R278 per month; built nearly half a million Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) homes; provided electricity to nearly two million unconnected homes or met the annual electricity needs of 4.7 million low-income households; delivered HIV treatment to over eight million infected citizens, full medical care to 13 million who lack ready access, or nearly 20 million vaccinations a year. This wasted sum actually ‘exceeds the total state budgets for housing, public transport, education, public health, and energy.’
 
The myriad of corruption through all echelons of government begs the question: Why are public officials so corrupt?
 
Nathanael Fast of the University of Southern California, recently conducted a study on the psychology behind corruption, specifically looking at how power and status affect one another. It was discovered that people are more likely to become corrupt if they have power, but not status, and that those with high-power / high-status, low-power / low-status, and low-power / high-status combinations were much less likely to become corrupt for personal gain. Hence, it is not just about money, but prestige. In South Africa, this is typically associated with government officials driving fancy black BMWs and buying lavish mansions they cannot actually afford without that extra little bit of ‘help’ from the national coffers.
 
However, in South Africa, it is not just the individual government officials who are at fault, it seems as though South Africans themselves are too forgiving of their unruly officials. Dina Pule, the former communications minister who allegedly funnelled contracts of government resources to her boyfriend Phosane Mngqibisa, primarily during the controversial Information and Communication Technology Indaba, was in August 2013, reprimanded by Parliament, but not expelled from the body altogether. After the proceedings, instead of being shunned for the disgrace to the rule of law that she is, Pule was encircled as a saint, with one journalist present tweeting: “ANC MPs including several ministers queue to hug Dina Pule as if she’s lost a puppy.”
 
What message does this send to the South African public? That government sees a slap on the wrist as sufficient to such large-scale corruption. And this is not even the only example of such a compliant attitude.  In a recent report, Peter Allwright, senior forensics manager at law firm Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, points out that in 2010 / 2011, no criminal action was taken in 76 percent of cases of financial misconduct by government officials. The Public Service Commission’s (PSC) Report on Financial Misconduct for the 2009/2010 Financial Year states: “Although 88 percent of officials were found guilty of misconduct in the cases, the most common sanction for financial misconduct was a final written warning (43 percent). Only 19 percent of officials found guilty of financial misconduct were discharged from the public service. The majority of perpetrators remain in their positions and often continue to commit financial misconduct.”
 
Perhaps South Africa should take a leaf out of Singapore’s book. In 2012, corruption watchdog agency Transparency International ranked Singapore as Asia’s least corrupt country, placing it at number five of the least corrupt countries globally, just after Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and Sweden. Upon liberation, this country instituted a meritocracy, namely a form of government in which officials are hired based on their abilities and rewarded accordingly. Singapore’s government leaders receive high salaries compared to other countries, which is said to help thwart corruption by decreasing the incentive to disobey the law for personal gain.
 
Yet, idealistic policies such as these are in reality not so easily instituted. With Singapore’s GDP per capita at US$61 803, the public officials’ high salaries do not really break the bank. However, in a country with raging inequality and a GDP of US$11 440, South Africa does not quite possess the means to introduce a meritocracy. Furthermore, corruption is, according to public opinion, also rooted in South Africa’s Apartheid past. The marginalisation of the black population experienced is often viewed as part of the reason behind current excesses, a sort of ‘making up for lost time’ if you will. Nevertheless, almost 20 years after Apartheid ended, this reasoning falls short when one considers those still impoverished and disadvantaged communities, who are without housing or sustainable income, two decades after these very same communities helped vote the African National Congress (ANC) into government. Instead, Lawson Naidoo, from the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, reveals that an “estimated […] 20 percent of the GDP is lost to corruption annually. South Africa as a nation has lost a staggering R385 billion since 1994 due to corruption at every level in government.”
 
Agang South Africa leader, Mamphela Ramphele, recently revealed her net worth, which, as of June 27 2013, stands at R55 436 063. Ramphele commented on this move as follows: “Being comfortable or having a measure of wealth is not a barrier to linking with poor people. What is a barrier is the abuse of power and stealing from poor people as this government has done consistently.” Not only are her transparent actions a rare sight in South Africa’s public sphere, Ramphele hits the proverbial nail on the head when she stresses how money itself is not the problem, but rather the people who handle it.
 
For now, it is upon civil society to fill the vacuum so obviously left by government in terms of the preservation of the rule of law. From on-the-ground gatherings to large organisations, civil society has a key role to play. South Africa’s own watchdog, Corruption Watch, is currently heralding such a movement. However, civil society can only do so much by raising awareness as well as exposing government for how it handles public funds. In the end, South Africans themselves need to realise that government and its officials are indeed not imbued with the spirit of ‘ubuntu’, nor will they ever be if the drive for status and prestige comes above the drive to fulfil the will of the people.
 
-  Laura Kapelari is SANGONeT’s International Human Rights Exchange intern. 

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