We Are All Corrupt

Sometime during the past week I was typically reading the South African daily newspapers online when I came across a story that caught my attention and led me to reflect on the issue of corruption and its effect on South African society. The article concerned was about a survey that was done which indicated that a large percentage of South African motorists admitted to having bribed a policeman or a traffic officer at some stage in the last three months in order to avoid getting a hefty fine or even sterner punishment. This got me thinking about the extent to which corruption runs through South African society and the culpability of ordinary South Africans for this unwanted phenomenon If you were to listen to most dinner table conversations or from just reading South African newspapers you would get the impression that corruption in South Africa is simply a government problem, an ANC problem or at worst an issue that is predominantly found amongst politicians and the political elite, with the rest of South African society being squeaky clean and completely unaffected by it. This is of course quite far from the truth. The inconvenient truth is that you will be hard-pressed to find any South African who has not cut corners at some stage when presented with the opportunity to do so. Most South Africans have bribed policemen and traffic officers at some stage, many in business have been involved in bribery and all sorts of covert activities that have helped them get business or access new markets and opportunities, many have bought drivers licenses and done all sorts of illegal, underhanded things in order to get jobs or access opportunities. Corruption is an issue that pervades every level of South African society, despite popular opinion only attributing it to the ANC and the government at large. Frantz Fanon’s words most accurately depict the levels of corruption that are prevalent in South Africa today, “the life of the nation is shot through with a certain falseness and hypocrisy, which are all the more tragic because they are so often subconscious rather than deliberate… The soul of the people is putrescent and until that becomes regenerate and clean, no good work can be done.” The simple fact is that corruption prevails in South Africa because most of us as citizens are corrupt and easily corruptible and if we were to be honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that there have been times when we have cut corners and given in to our corrupt nature instead of doing what is right and ethical before the law. As Albert Camus so succinctly put it, “we are all special cases.” The problem is that there is a lot of hypocrisy in our society. We vilify politicians for being corrupt whilst we justify our own corrupt behaviour by minimising and down-playing it. Or in the case of the media, we criticise politicians and government for not being accountable and open to scrutiny, but the moment that accountability is demanded of us and the magnifying glass of the nation’s eyes is fixed on us demanding greater transparency and accountability to society we cry foul and claim that our freedoms are under threat. So we create one standard for politicians and political leaders and expect a different standard to be applied to us out of an over-exaggerated sense of self-righteousness. This phenomenon reminds me of the words the American poet Walt Whitman uttered about himself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  South Africa has a society and a media that contradicts itself when it comes to the issue of corruption. The fact that we are such a highly regulated society is just further evidence that we are part of the problem when it comes to corruption.  The Greek Philosopher Plato said that, “good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.” South Africans have a knack for finding a way around laws even when highly regulated: witness the collusion to fix the bread price that was exposed by the Competition Commission. This is corporate corruption of the vilest kind which directly affected the poorest in society and exploited them for the sake of profit. In the words of the poet William Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: little we see in nature that is ours.” The culture of materialism and wealth-accumulation at all costs has infected every sector of South African society and has left a heartless, soulless society in which the popular ethos seems to be, “he who can accumulate the most by whatever means necessary, without ethical or moral considerations, is king.” The lie that we have led ourselves to believe and which the media has popularised is that it is politicians who are evil and corrupt and that they are the only ones who need to be regulated, held to account and scrutinised. This is convenient for all of us, including the media because it keeps us from pointing the finger at ourselves and seeing ourselves as part of the corruption problem in South Africa. The stark reality to paraphrase the words of the philosopher Plato is that, “South Africa is what it is, because its citizens are what they are.” Everyone is pursuing their own personal gain with no regard for ethics and morality, despite our self-deception which has led us to believe that we are not as corrupt as our political leadership. To borrow Ayi Kwei Armah’s words from his epic novel, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, “Everybody is swimming towards what he wants. Who wants to remain on the beach asking the wind, How… How… How?” Next time you are sitting around a dinner table and the conversation drifts towards the corrupt escapades of some politician or prominent figure, ask yourself a simple  question: how clean am I? Am I totally innocent of corruption or corrupt behaviour? Have I ever bribed or cut corners in my quest for personal advancement and if I have, how different is that from the political figure or public personality that I am vilifying? It is imperative that we continuously remind ourselves of the words of Arthur Schopenhauer in our battle against corruption and its destructive effects, “national character is only another name for the particular form which the littleness, perversity and baseness of mankind take in every country.”
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Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

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