Tackling corruption: a wild idea

I am writing this on the day of the Move One Million marches across South Africa. The movement has caught international attention in showing “solidarity against a bent and corrupt system that can no longer be allowed to have its way with the future of our people…” It’s fantastic that so many across the nation and overseas have been given the opportunity to take action and express their determination to see South Africa free from this thievery.

What is not so clear is how this action is going to change things. (Peaceful protest always does sound like an oxymoron!) We can always hope of course, but what are the political realities here? Corruption is endemic in South Africa. It’s beyond the point of an isolated case or two that can be stamped upon. It has become a many headed hydra: for every head that is cut off the monster another two spring up in its place. For all the outrage against corruption by the President and others, there has not yet been a single person charged out of the state capture inquiry, for example.

So what is the problem? As I see it there are two obstacles to seriously tackling corruption. First, too many hands have been in the till. Which means that among the political classes almost everyone has dirt on almost everyone else. Which leaves us trapped, because it’s just too costly for the truth to come out. Leadership (especially the collective leadership style espoused by the ANC) is paralysed by its own complicity. Letting sleeping dogs lie would actually suit most people in government.

The solution that screams out at us (and the one implicitly envisaged by the Move One Million marches) is to replace the present corrupt government (self-confessed “accused number one”) with a new clean administration. But how? Polite peaceful protests? Again, we can always hope, but the political likelihood of the ANC losing national power in the short term seems very remote. There is no coherent alternative. And if there were an alternative, why do we believe that political power in other hands would be any less corrupting?

Which brings us to the second obstacle: corruption has acquired a status of normality in the culture of much of the nation. Of course no one would put it quite like that. But the idea that political advancement and connection for an individual should bring material benefits for them and their family seems unquestionably right to many. Especially to those individuals and their families. Corruption is the word we reserve for the Guptas and Zuma. But all I want to do is get a job for my son and some business for my brother. Surely that’s not corruption? And a new 4X4 would be nice. Where’s the harm in that? And that is exactly how it all starts. The ANC has no monopoly on this notion – it just got to try it out first.

Now culture is not easily shifted. Once that particular belief about political entitlement is ingrained, it takes a strong shock to dislodge it. How can we break this insidious culture? How can we achieve a transition to a civil society characterized by integrity? How can we reactivate a paralysed leadership? So here is a wild idea! (If we are going to see the back of corruption, it’s probably going to take some wild ideas!)

26 years ago South Africa achieved a momentous transition from white minority government to democracy. What could have been a moment of civil war was largely peaceful not least because of the functioning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So for a new transition, here is my proposal: a Truth and Integrity Commission.

Central to the proposal is amnesty. There will be no truth without amnesty. We can spend billions on multiple commissions of enquiry, painfully chasing truths that vested powers don’t want to come out, to produce charges against a few individuals that take years to grind through the courts in trials and appeals. Or we can draw a line in the sand. Tell us what you have corruptly obtained. Full disclosure for full immunity. Big fish and little fish. Politicians, civil servants and business leaders. Up to this date. After that the full weight of the law applies without mercy. Double the penalties.

And I think that means that the perpetrators get to keep their ill-gotten gains. Or however much they have left. Sure, it sticks in the throat, but there are two reasons for this. First my instinct tells me that the cost of recovery could be huge (I’m no forensic accountant, so I could be wrong here!) But second and more important, recovery could well bankrupt many perpetrators which would seriously undermine the amnesty incentive.

Would it work? I’ve no idea! I’m sure there are lots of people out there who would be eager to tell my why it wouldn’t. All I know is two things: 1. South Africa needs something drastic to happen and 2. The kingdom of heaven arrives with truth and grace in the person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps that double whammy of truth and grace is just what we need.