Only the Rate is in Dispute
Far more practical than the annual global corruption-ranking list published last week might be a menu giving the prices of politicians in each country. What this would undoubtedly reveal, contrary to stereotypes, is that first-world politicians want first-worldpriced bribes while third-world politicians tend to sell out for a pittance.
In the Schabir Shaik trial, this might even account for the astonishment evidently expressed by French businessman Alain Thetard at the fuss South African newspapers were making about alleged bribery in the arms deal. His then secretary told the Durban court last week that Thetard told her such practice was common in France.
If you check the figures, however, his surprise might also be explained by how cheaply it was claimed that his firm had tried to buy political influence.
Deputy President Jacob Zuma, it is alleged, was offered an annual bribe of R500000. Yet in Franc £6,5m was paid to Christine Deviers-Joncour, mistress of former French foreign minister Roland Dumas, to lobby Dumas for the sale of frigates to Taiwan by the same company embroiled in our own arms scandal.
This came out three years ago in the long-running trial in France of stateowned oil-company Elf, which doled out millions in bribes with the encouragement of the late French president Francois Mitterrand. Elf gave Deviers-Joncour a credit line of £20000 a month and bought her a £1,7m flat in Paris.
Wives, it seems, got more. Last year former Elf president Loik Le Floch-Prigent told a French court how he had sought then president Mitterrand's approval to use à 5m of the state company's money to pay for his divorce. His wife, he explained, knew too much about the company's corrupt secrets.
On this scale, it might well be that your average European arms dealer would indeed be astonished how cheaply he could seemingly buy influence in SA. Compare this with Britain. Under the last Tory government there was a set tariff. You could buy access to a cabinet minister for £10000 and to the prime minister for £100000.
UK property developer John Beckwith, with the help of Tory central office, founded an organisation called the Premier Club; the above prices were the fee businessmen had to pay to get the ear of either a minister or the prime minister.
It wasn't put quite so blatantly. For £10000, said the glossy Premier Club brochure, you got not only dinner with a cabinet minister, but "opportunities for the positive exchange of views". For £100000, "you will be on the list of smaller dinners with the prime minister".
When in 1996 the existence of the Premier Club was exposed, then prime minister John Major was forced to tell the house of commons: "No one can buy access to ministers."
The next day Beckwith, who ran the club, clarified that for £100000 "what you would be able to do is meet Major and listen to what he has to say". Which sounds, in plain English, like buying access. But with fine British aplomb this was accepted as a "positive exchange of views" a euphemism that might prove useful for the beleaguered Shaik.
Of course, there was the far cruder case not long after of the Tory MP Neil Hamilton, who used to make weekly trips to the luxury London store Harrods, where the owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed, would hand him plastic shopping bags stuffed with £50 notes.
In return, Hamilton would lobby on behalf of Al-Fayed and even ask questions for him in the house of commons. The British public reacted with horror and the venal Hamilton was hounded out of parliament.
Nothing, however, was done in the case of the Premier Club, whose levy for a single meeting with John Major, it should be noted, was double the annual backhander allegedly offered Zuma.
What repelled the public in the Hamilton scandal, I suspect as opposed to joining a swell-sounding "club" and paying serious money for access to the prime minister was the lack of style and the cut-rate prices. Cash in grubby plastic bags? No class. Very Third World.
So it seems there are not just different rates for kickbacks but different standards of judgment.
Soon after Tony Blair was elected for the first time, for example, the boss of Formula One an open supporter of the Tory Party paid £1m to the Labour Party. Blair promptly, and personally, intervened to overturn the long-standing Labour Party policy on tobacco advertising to accommodate the Formula One boss. The coincidence of a payment of £1m and an immediate reversal of party policy seemed, well suspicious.
How, asked Blair, could anyone think him corrupt? After all, he declared in a now famous phrase, "I'm a pretty straight kinda guy." And he got away with it.
Yet just imagine if, instead of the current trial in Durban, Zuma had simply said, "trust me", and we'd collectively muttered: "Oh, okay, we'll take your word for it, old boy."
Traits like self-delusion or hypocrisy are not factored into that league table of global corruption, where the UK scored as the 11th-most honest country compared with our ranking as joint 44th. Nor, more crucially, is the question: who actually pays the bribe?
George Bernard Shaw, possibly apocryphally, is said have asked a beautiful aristocrat: "Would you sleep with me for 1m?" She playfully replied, "Why not?"
He inquired, "And for $10?" Now outraged, the lady demanded, "Do you think I am a prostitute?" Shaw's verdict summarises, beyond the moral bluster of the rich, that slim line between first and third world orders of corruption.
"We have established the fact, madam," replied Shaw. "All we are now doing is fixing the rate."
Rostron is a freelance writer. His novel, My Shadow, has just been published by David Philip.
With acknowledgements to Bryan Rostron and the Business Day.