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.

Face masks and freedom

Face masks are the new cultural signifiers. Forget flags, accents, dress-sense to tell the difference between Brits, Americans or South Africans – just bring up the subject of face masks.

The Brits, for example, are law abiding people (more or less), and in order to be law abiding you have to know precisely what the law requires. Over the last few weeks there has been an intense debate in the UK over the relative merits of 2m vs 1.5m. Do cops really go round with tape measures there? (The Estonians meanwhile, I have heard, are very frustrated by the 2m rule, and can’t wait to get back to their normal 4m.)

But then last Friday England introduced a rule requiring the wearing of face masks in shops, and the conversation shifted dramatically. There is a whole new swathe of potential uncertainties to iron out now. For example, if I go into Pret to buy my latte and prawn salad baguette, I will have to wear a mask while I queue up (at 1.5m or 2m separation) to buy it at the counter. BUT if I sit down at a socially distanced table to drink my latte and munch my baguette, I won’t have to wear a face mask. Well I’m glad we sorted that one out!

South Africans, meanwhile, have a totally different concept of what law abiding means. The law is a menacing threat used to make us behave, but it probably won’t be enforced with any consistency. And certainly not if you have political connections. The Nationalist government was masterful at pushing out ill-considered, blanket, authoritarian regulations, and the ANC has eagerly taken up the baton.

So South Africans must wear a face mask outside their homes. Where outside the home exactly? Well no one really knows. The police don’t know. The government doesn’t know. In fact no one will ever know until 5 years after Covid-19 when some case finally lands up before the Constitutional Court who will belatedly rule on the matter. Actually we’re quite glad no one knows because that makes the infringement debatable and the penalty negotiable. Ignorantia legis neminem excusat. Ignorantia a lege omnes excusat. So in the meantime we begrudgingly carry a mask around and wear it at half-mast as a token gesture.

And then there’s the good old US of A. Oh my goodness me! Perhaps it’s because of the upcoming election, but the face mask issue there seems to have assumed nuclear proportions. Yes I know the 73rd amendment guarantees all citizens the right not to wear a face mask unless they are robbing a bank (or something like that), but is Western civilization really going to crumble and fall if Americans don’t take a stand against face masks?

The pivotal word is Freedom. Land of the Free and home of the Brave. A fierce ideology of freedom is a uniquely American thing (probably dating back to oppressive mis-rule by the Brits). Every encroachment, however minor, on my right to live my life the way I see fit, is resisted with a religious passion. And face masks are clearly a gross violation of my freedom.

Now the Americans may well be right. It may well be that without their ideological fervor (see how Microsoft made me spell fervor!) we would all be living under oppressive socialist regimes right now. But I do want to make this point – that ideological freedom is not the same thing as gospel freedom. Not even close.

When Paul declares that “it is for freedom’s sake that Christ has set us free”, he is not making a pitch for small government and self-determination. He is telling the Galatians that they have been set free from the requirements of the Torah. Which is quite a different thing. There is a new righteousness in Christ quite apart from the old way of the Torah. So they should resist people who tell them to get circumcised. Which is a bit more serious and permanent than wearing a face mask.

And when Jesus says that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”, he is not talking about freedom from governmental overreach, but freedom from the power of sin (read John 8:34-36). And in setting us free from sin, Jesus has also set us free from death (Rom 8:2).

So let’s push through for freedom. Let’s resist petty regulation and abusive government, but let’s be clear that it’s a political value, not a gospel one.

(Sincere apologies to anyone who feels their nationality has been insulted. Aussies, Kiwis and Lithuanians who feel offended because I haven’t insulted you in this blog, please let me know and I will try to include you in the next one!) Also weren’t you impressed by my Latin! The first part is the famous legal dictum: “Ignorance of the law excuses no one.” The second part is the South African version: “If the law is ignorant that lets everyone off.”

Polarization, Peace and Pentecost

There was a brief moment at the end of April when the sun broke through the gloom. Covid-19 was gaining a foothold around the globe and the true scale of the threat was emerging. Suddenly it seemed there was a real possibility of genuine international cooperation to beat the virus. “It’s like a world war except we’re all on the same side!” Would a common enemy called coronavirus enable the human race to get over themselves and realize that we share living space on a rather crowded and infected planet?

Alas, the clouds rolled in quickly. In very short order world leaders were trying to corner the market in non-existent vaccines for their own nation, unproven medicines were stockpiled, and PPE consignments were hijacked in mid-air (a governmental equivalent to buying out all the toilet paper you can find). America was busy putting America first, and Britain Brexiting. There was a league table of who was doing better than who in fighting the virus. While everyone else was preoccupied, China was surreptitiously trying to grab Hong Kong, Taiwan and a chunk of India. And Kim Jong-un blew up a liaison office on the border with South Korea. Nice one that.

The re-energized polarizations were not limited to political leaders. Social media space has become a war zone of who is hoaxing who, whose lives matter and who is allowed to say what, who can use what bathroom, and who likes Donald Trump. I didn’t tell you that the quote in my first paragraph came from Bill Gates, because I knew some of you would stop reading at that point. That’s polarization.

So world peace lies in tatters again! Was I dumb for even hoping? It used to be a regular feature of beauty contests that contenders would vacuously claim to “dream of world peace”. But followers of Jesus Christ, whether they are beautiful or ugly, really should dream of world peace, because that is what he came for. He is the Prince of Peace, and the promise of his kingdom is that it will come with ever-increasing peace.

In the midst of this chaos we celebrated Pentecost, the amazing day when “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” together heard of the mighty works of God. The church was the original United Nations. Pentecost was the day when God reversed the curse of Babel through the gift of tongues so that the nations could once again speak to each other. On the day of Pentecost, God put us back in the place where “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” What a prospect!

Since that day, we haven’t, in all honesty, been great stewards of the kingdom of peace that was birthed in our midst. We are the salt to flavour the earth, but our saltiness has been questionable. I have a modest proposal for world peace(*): that we believers start learning to live in honour with other believers, especially those we disagree with and who differ from us (like how to spell “honour” properly! 😁 ) We can’t blame the world for being the world if the church is failing to be the church.

(*) Acknowledgment is due to the Mennonites who have their own version of this proposal

Race, riots and radical economic transformation

I have resisted writing this blog. So much has already been said and so much capital made of the deaths of George Floyd and Collins Khosa that I hesitate to wade in. But I do want to address some words to my own people – to my brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to address those who have the courage to post on social media and to those who silently nurse their opinions and fears. We Christians have an unerring capacity to be so right and yet get it so wrong at the same time.

Pain is real. Pain is personal. I can imagine what it is like to be a black person on the receiving end of racist behaviour. But I don’t actually know. Which is why I have to listen to the stories of schoolgirls from St Anne’s or motorists stopped by the police in the US. Empathy is a dangerous delusion that convinces me I already understand and don’t need to listen any more. But I almost certainly don’t understand.  People in pain need to be heard. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” (That’s an observation not a justification.)

“Let’s just move on now!” might be a sensible suggestion (or not!), but it translates into, “Your pain is of no importance to me.” Or, “There’s something wrong with you if you still feel pain.” Likewise, “I’ve had a tough life too,” or “<some other group> are really badly treated too,” means I have stopped listening to you.

Listening is not an admission of personal culpability or responsibility to fix things. It’s just listening, which says, “I hear your pain.” Listening to your story doesn’t mean I agree with your interpretation of events (people in pain often blame “the system”). But I can’t listen to your story and fight your thinking at the same time. I have to make a choice to shut up.

Social injustice is real too. Not every pain is caused by social injustice, but some is. The meme which says, “The problem isn’t race it’s sin!” is a flat denial of the existence of social injustice, and people who believe that clearly haven’t read their bible for a while. The story from Genesis through to Revelation is a heart cry for social justice: deliverance from slavery in Egypt, captivity in Babylon or oppression under the Roman Empire. In fact, the very last question the disciples are recorded as asking Jesus was, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”, which was a cry for social justice.

The gospel of the kingdom is God’s answer not just to personal sin, but (possibly more so) to social injustice. It is a kingdom of ever increasing shalom, where every tear will be wiped away. And this is not spiritual escapism, but a coming earthly reality, where the meek will inherit, the poor will possess the kingdom, the mourners will be comforted, the hungry and thirsty will be satisfied.

The church has consistently and rightly been at the forefront of the fight to alleviate the consequences of social injustice. We have inherited a culture of caring for orphans and widows and remembering the poor and showing hospitality to strangers and visiting those in prison. Some of these things we have done well, some less well. But the real challenge is not alleviating the ill-effects of the system but changing the system.

Race riots are not about providing care for George Floyd’s widow or Collins Khosa’s children. They are about changing the system that allowed their deaths (and many others) to happen. And changing the system is problematic because of the law of unintended consequences. Even with the best of intentions things can work out badly when we try and fiddle with things. Communism stands as an object lesson in the perils of social engineering. But I want to make three observations on the subject.

First some major changes to “the system” have worked well. We can name the abolition of slavery, the vote for women and, more recently, the dismantling of apartheid. All of these were fairly radical changes in their time, and I do not believe there can be many who today would wish to reverse them!

Second no one, even from the most laissez-faire economic viewpoint, actually believes in unregulated capitalism. We have already introduced into the system laws to protect us from monopolies, to protect the environment from wanton dumping and to stop children being sent down mines, for example. It is the right and duty of every society to consider how to regulate its activities for the protection and benefit of all its members. Yes, there are trade-offs between freedom and protection, but the conversation is valid and necessary.

Third perpetuating the status quo in South Africa (or the USA or UK) is not an option. Racial injustice is still embedded in our cultures and systems, and the present race riots are witness to that. In South Africa we have a government that is fully representative of the “previously disadvantaged majority”, yet the previously disadvantaged are still disadvantaged, for the most part. Political freedom has not translated into economic freedom.

Is that the fault of the government? Quite possibly. Will “radical economic transformation” work where previous plans have failed? Probably not. But here is the test of our hearts, church: are we willing the government to succeed for the sake of the poor? Or are we fighting a passive-aggressive rearguard action to protect the status quo for as long as possible? When we pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are asking for change. What kind of change do we have in mind? If not “radical economic transformation” (the very name sounds like a recipe for disaster) then what? If we are the “blessed in order to be a blessing”, then let’s have a good look at blessing the most down-trodden in our land. It’s time to see a new Africa. Again.

What’s wrong with conspiracy theories

They’re thriving at the moment! Some are ludicrous and some have a greater sense of plausibility. We need to be “wise as serpents” and know what’s going on (or may be going on.) Don’t we?

Here’s the problem: conspiracy theories neatly divide the world in two. Too neatly. There’s the baddies (WHO, Bill Gates, left-wing politicians and governments generally) and then there’s the goodies, which by definition means us. The naive victims.

But reality is not so neat. The one powerful lesson of Covid-19 infection is that we are all potential victims and at the same time potential perpetrators. The enemy is not “them”, as Paul reminds us, but spiritual forces of wickedness. Of course those forces work through human agency. Because we are all proud, threatened, defensive people, we have the potential to partner with demons of fear, greed, domination, murder. All of us.

So the problem is not that there is no conspiracy, but that there are millions of them. Billions. It’s called politics. Where two or three are gathered – there is a conspiracy. Some conspiracies are genuinely for good. Some are misguided. Some are self-serving. And some are downright evil. But mostly they are just people doing what seems best to them.

This is a unique moment in human history. Never before has humanity faced an economic crisis of this magnitude together. Sure we have different views on how to tackle it. Sure we are looking for someone to blame, and sure some stinking partnerships with demons have come to light. But the enemy is not them.

The great news is that we are not alone in this battle. God so loved the world. The whole world. Including them. His heart aches for every person not living in the peace of the kingdom. There is a divine restlessness driven by compassion until the kingdom comes in fulness.

And the second part of the good news is that through Jesus I am free. I no longer need to partner with my fears and the drive to self-preservation or greed. I actually can be a bigger person, even in the midst of the crisis.

So let’s position ourselves as part of the solution. Let’s pray with the compassion of heaven. Let’s stand fiercely in the freedom that has been bought for us.