Lynching Officials is a National Pastime
Like many South Africans I have followed the saga over allegations of corruption against Deputy President Jacob Zuma and former transport minister Mac Maharaj with keen interest. Judging from media reports, internet postings and radio talk shows it would seem that there is a strong call for heads to roll. The question I pose is: "Which heads?"
There is a public perception of widespread corruption in government. Recent studies suggest that almost half of South Africans believe government to be substantially corrupt. A recent United Nations survey suggests that 41% of South Africans believe the country has a lot of corruption and that it is one of our most serious problems.
Transparency International's corruption perception index ranks SA 36th out of 102 countries. Interestingly, the data available on the actual extent of corruption in government suggests that it is not as high as it is perceived to be. Only 11% of respondents and their family members had first-hand experience of government corruption.
It seems to me that the perceptions of corruption are swayed by the large extent of sensationalist journalism and political grandstanding.
Corruption is by definition the abuse of power for one's own gain. By extrapolation, this makes it a very serious problem because it tends to benefit the already powerful at the expense of the less mighty. Experience of other developing nations is that it becomes an integral part of the collapse of an economy and civil society.
It is therefore correct that ordinary people speak up against it, and it is right for the media (which is often their only voice) to act vigilantly against it. The naming and shaming of corrupt officials is an effective mechanism of bringing corrupters to book, but it has at least two flaws. First, the frenzy created by sensationalist journalism can often judge a person to be guilty without due process. The assumption is one of guilt, as is the case for Messrs Zuma and Maharaj.
Even in the face of evidence of innocence the damage to personal reputations and careers is irreversible.
How quickly the bloodthirsty mob forgets that the judicial system is founded on the principle that rather a thousand guilty men go free than one innocent man be hanged.
The second flaw is one that puts the guilt squarely on one individual, the corrupt government official. Let's take a practical look at a typical government tender process. Bidders are invited to submit their bids for consideration. This can typically include hundreds of bids, from which a shortlist is compiled of, say, five bidders.
At this stage, the quality of the proposals is often so high (and similar) that any one of the bidders could win the tender on merit. It is at this point that the arithmetic favours bribery.
Statistically, a bidder has only a 20% chance of success. If the tender is worth R100000 then it would make sense for a bidder to pay up to R20000 to secure the contract. An official would consider a bribe relative to his or her financial circumstances. So when you apply this formula to contracts for millions or even billions, the problem becomes unwieldy.
It was Oscar Wilde who said: "I can resist anything except temptation". In this case I do not speak of the temptation to take the bribe, but rather the temptation to offer it, because the risk to a company making a bribe is often much less than for the person to whom it is being made. In business circles this is accepted as the cost of doing business with government. Some would go so far as to argue that a primary role of agents in deals like the arms deal is to facilitate the manoeuvring of commissions.
In my opinion, we subject our civil servants to situations where their integrity and restraint is put under immense pressure by aggressive corporates. It is, if you will, like telling a kid in a candy store: "Look but don't touch, touch but don't taste." Where do you draw the line?
So before we continue our national pastime of lynching one official after another in our kangaroo courts, we may want to revisit the process so that we can protect them from themselves.
Mazwai is CEO of BJM Securities.
With acknowledgement to the Business Day.