Pricking the conscience of an increasingly amoral nation

Mugabe Ratshikuni says the disease of corruption has infected all parts of SA society, not just the ANC

In her book, Ministry of Crime: An Underworld Explored, Mandy Wiener makes the following poignant observation about the state of affairs in South African society, “corruption is woven into South Africa’s social fabric. It is familiar, ubiquitous and sadly deemed acceptable on many levels of society.”

Almost on a weekly basis, we hear stories in the news of corruption and corrupt activities implicating top politicians and their associates and it would appear that the phenomenon has now become so prevalent that we have almost become desensitised to it and like Mandy Wiener in the quote above, have almost resigned ourselves to the reality that corruption is a normal part of our daily, lived reality as South Africans.

Corruption, as we all know, with State Capture being the most pertinent example, is devastating to the life and health of our nation, with government departments, agencies and entities limping as a result of corrupt activities by unscrupulous politicians and officials.

In making this astounding, astonishing observation, Mandy Wiener accurately diagnoses one of the biggest problems we are faced with as a country and affirms the fact that, contrary to popular belief, corruption is not just a problem of politicians and “ANC people”, but rather is a rampant disease that has infected all layers of South African society, hence we have accepted as normal simple things such as the bribing of traffic officials.

The South African disease of corruption is built on another popular South African phenomenon, the love of cutting corners if it’ll “make things easier” for us, the “lotto mentality” as I call it, hence the proliferation of get-rich-quick schemes and false prophets and churches promising people instant solutions to their problems.

Former President Thabo Mbeki reflected on this phenomenon in his 2006 Nelson Mandela memorial lecture when he said, “thus, every day, and during every hour of our time beyond sleep, the demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realisable dream and nightmare. With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity - get rich! get rich! get rich!”

Of course, corruption is not a uniquely South African or African problem , as our “unreconstructed racist” fellow South Africans have convinced themselves and it is also not a “black government”(read ANC) problem, as “they” (the “unreconstructed racists”) also fallaciously, parochially believe. This is not, in anyway meant to absolve the ANC-led government of blame for rampant corruption within the state which has almost collapsed service delivery and had a detrimental effect on building state capacity, so don’t deliberately get me wrong and label me a corruption apologist here, as you are prone to and are most likely to anyway.

To get a better sense of the facilitatory and complicit nature of other players within society, more specifically the private sector and big, global corporations in rampant corruption within contemporary South Africa, one only has to read the recently released (February 2020) Open Secrets report titled, The Enablers: The Bankers, Accountants and Lawyers that cashed in on State Capture; or most pertinently the Steinhoff saga.

In reflecting on all of this, one is forced to ask the cliched Leninist question, what is to be done? Firstly, we have to rid ourselves of the false notion which was adopted by secular humanist moderns in the post Enlightenment era, that human beings are innately good and get corrupted along the way. In fact, the converse is true, as so aptly captured by Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a man who had profound insights on matters relating to the human condition, having been exposed to the evils of Stalinist Russia, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn't change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.”

All men are innately corrupt and corruptible as per Solzhenitsyn's assertion. Corruption is a public sector, private sector and societal problem. Solzhenitsyn reminds us that the fundamental problem of history and humanity is that human beings are innately corrupt and corruptible, contrary to what secular humanist moderns with their intellectual arrogance believe.

The Enlightenment brought to the fore this triumphalist, humanistic belief in the self-sufficiency and efficacy of human reason and rationality and the belief in the innate goodness of man. Scientific and technological progress have made no impact whatsoever on the condition of the human heart and in wanting to fight corruption successfully, we have to start off with dumping the assertion that human beings are inherently good, in line with Solzhenitsyn’s thinking and perhaps reconsider “outdated” (in the eyes of moderns) Calvinistic notions of the total depravity of man.

The other people who have it wrong in this regard, are the outdated Marxist-Leninists in our midst, with their dialectical materialism and belief in the altruistic nature of humanity. Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw the dangers of this post Enlightenment triumphalism of the secular humanists, in his Parable of the Madman (it is very long but profoundly germane in the context of the current discourse),

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" -- As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? -- Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us -- for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars -- and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"

So, modernity, with its belief in the goodness of man, its attack on traditional belief systems and institutions like the family and religion as two examples, totally got it wrong, hence we almost comically, laughably believe that ethics can be taught and inculcated in a course at a business school, or as happened within the Gauteng provincial government recently, where all senior civil servants where required to go through an online ethics course as part of the fight against corruption, through an online module.

In fighting corruption as contemporary South Africans, we have to start off by getting rid of this false notion of innate human goodness and move closer towards embracing Calvinistic notions of the total depravity of humanity. This makes corruption not “their” problem (out there), but our collective (there goes that ANC term again, I hear you say) and individual problem as a people. So, from that perspective of understanding innate human corruptibility, we build and uphold institutions and systems at all levels of society that guard against our natural propensity to be corrupt as human beings and we defend and respect those systems and institutions above any political party affiliation, above love and affection for any individual and any ideological biases that we may have. Our democratic checks and balances, our systems and structures should be built with this understanding in mind, not the flawed humanist belief in the inherent goodness of man.

Second to that, we embrace the fact that ethics and morals (which counter corruption and corruptibility) are inculcated and imbibed in a socialisation process which requires traditional institutions such as family and religion. In other words, these are not outdated institutions, but rather critical pillars of building a healthy, modern society. In present day, Instagram-influenced South Africa, where the supreme values seem to be materialism (he who has the most toys wins) and hedonism (he who has the most fun and pleasure wins), this focus on socialisation towards a less corruptible society couldn’t be more important, because as former President Mbeki said in the Nelson Mandela lecture previously referred to in this piece,

“In these circumstances, personal wealth, and the public communication of the message that we are people of wealth, becomes, at the same time, the means by which we communicate the message that we are worthy citizens of our community, the very exemplars of what defines the product of a liberated South Africa.

This peculiar striving produces the particular result that manifestations of wealth, defined in specific ways, determine the individuality of each one of us who seeks to achieve happiness and self-fulfilment, given the liberty that the revolution of 1994 brought to all of us.

In these circumstances, the meaning of freedom has come to be defined not by the seemingly ethereal and therefore intangible gift of liberty, but by the designer labels on the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the spaciousness of our houses and our yards, their geographic location, the company we keep, and what we do as part of that company.”

In any case, I am not one to moralise and preach to society, these are just the random reflections of an “undeservedly deployed, Commie, Leftie, inept, incompetent, corrupt ANC cadre”, as most on this platform constantly label us.

Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government; He is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.