Publication: Sunday Times Issued: Date: 2003-09-21 Reporter: Xolela Mangcu

Corruption's Roots Can be Found in Political Culture



Sunday Times

Date 2003-09-21


Xolela Mangcu

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There has been a tendency among those of us writing about African politics to think about corruption as a uniquely Third World phenomenon. But corruption extends back to the 19th Century, especially in the local government system in the US.

If corruption is not endemic to African societies, what explains its existence now? Once again, the easy answer is power and greed. I would like to offer a universal explanation that locates corruption in the broader political culture, going back, in fact, to the foundations of liberal democracy itself.

In The Theory of Possessive Individualism, C B Macpherson demonstrates how the concept of democracy espoused by people such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jeremy Bentham entrenched in the political culture the idea that we are all self-interested individuals whose purpose in life is to maximise our individual pleasures without regard to the greater community good.

Self-aggrandisement became the basis on how people thought about themselves and their relations to each other and to government. However this liberal individualism became increasingly untenable in the face of growing social inequalities, especially in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

There was thus a transition from individualism to interest-group pluralism as different social groups - immigrants, blacks, women - demanded social services from the government. The state would now be the arbiter of the competing demands of these groups.

Enter what the British scholar James Bryce called the political machine. This was an institutional innovation that political parties devised to control and even blackmail the different social groups: either these groups gave their support to the party or they would not get social services. In the end, the government was seen as a site for individuals and groups to extract what public resources they could.

Through an informal exchange of resources and rewards for supporters, political machines evolved into continuous governing systems in cities such as New York and Chicago. In New York, this goes back to the time of Boss Tweed who, in the mid-1880s, used the power of issuing street franchises and liquor licences to control the distribution of graft.

Perhaps the most openly corrupt politician was local councillor George Plunkitt, who boasted about his corrupt practices thus: "I don't think you can find a better example than I am of success in politics . . . and if you hear people say that I've [ acquired] a million or so since I was a butcher's boy in Washington market, don't come to me for an indignant denial. I'm pretty comfortable, thank you."

Now what does this have to do with corruption in Africa, and in South Africa? My own thesis is that we must locate our own corruption in the political culture that has evolved over the years, a political culture founded on a number of principles that have to do with extracting maximum benefits from the state for both individuals and groups.

Because the government controls contracts involving billions of rands, both government leaders and their friends can collude to give each other those contracts in the name of group progress.

Former Transport Minister Mac Maharaj is alleged to have unduly and improperly influenced the awarding of a government contract in return for an individual kickback. At the heart of the Zuma saga is the allegation that the deputy president abused his position to try to secure for himself a kickback.

As in the case of the political machine, this corruption is extended through the well-intended concept of service delivery.

Politicians in various municipalities have used their clout to punish political opponents and reward their friends. Others have blocked investment in their communities .

Corruption is not just a matter of people exchanging money in dark corners or under tables. Corruption is ultimately a function of the political culture and political psychology of a people, whether we are talking about Plunkitt in New York, senior government officials and their business partners in South Africa or local municipal bosses.

We must study how other societies have dealt with a phenomenon that is arguably the greatest threat to democracy. It may well be that we need a social reform movement that cuts across political parties in the black community itself.

Because of their proximity to power and resources, political parties cannot be entrusted with such a movement. Because of their interest in getting resources, business leaders cannot be entrusted with this movement, although they could join it. Because they benefited so much from the corrupt political culture of the past, white politicians cannot be entrusted with this movement, although they, too, could join it.

To restore our political and moral values we need leadership from the black community, a non-party leadership forum in civil society.

Mangcu is executive director of the Steve Biko Foundation

With acknowledgements to Xolela Mangcu and the Sunday Times.