Corruption Watch

Zuma’s corruption view places SA at a crossroad

Hulley & Zuma chose dangerous arguments
Hulley & Zuma.jpg

The recently revealed view by President Jacob Zuma that corruption is a “Western paradigm” and the withdrawal of some 783 criminal charges against him (based on alleged political motives and implied ‘blackmail’) are confronting South Africa with some critical choices about its future.

The choice of a line of argument based on what scholars call “cultural relativism” by Mr Zuma’s lawyer, Michael Hulley, in a submission to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) seeking the withdrawal of the charges of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering, poses the following questions:

• In which league of nations will South Africa find itself going forward in terms of the prevalence of corruption;

• Will the rule of law survive as a cornerstone of the way South African society organises itself in future, with every citizen, irrespective of his status, equal before the law; and

• Will the constitutionally mandated institutions and legislation ensuring accountability by the executive of the land survive?


League of nations

On the question of the league of nations as far is corruption is concerned it is important to note that in May this year already Transparency International reported that in most indices of corruption, including those produced by Transparency International, (TI) South Africa is ranked somewhere in the middle:

“The bad news is that its ranking steadily deteriorated for many years and has now stabilised at an unsatisfactory score of 42 (out of 100), indicating a serious problem with corruption.”

One of the main reasons for this decline in the country’s position on corruption indices, cited by TI, is the many controversies Mr Zuma found himself involved in before the 2009 election – the very substance of Mr Hulley’s memorandum. Since then the Nkandla affair concerning upgrades to Mr Zuma’s private home has been added to that list.

It is interesting that the one country on the African continent where the “Western paradigm” statement drew some attention was Nigeria, which in the 2013 TI corruption index was rated 144th out of 177 countries, and was scored 25 out of 100.

The News of Nigeria reported that “Zuma’s standpoint is similar to the position of Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan, who described corruption as mere common stealing, perhaps undeserving of the opprobrium attached to it internationally”.

And, similar to the “political conspiracy” grounds on which the charges against Mr Zuma were withdrawn in 2009 by the then NPA head, Mokotedi Mpshe, it is further reported: “Jonathan told national television in May this year ... the corruption claims appeared politically motivated.”

Rule of law

On the question of the survival of the rule of law in the country it is important to note that despite Mr Zuma’s assessment that “corruption is a Western thing”, and even if it was a crime where there were “no victims”, two facts stand out: Corruption is indeed a crime in terms of South Africa’s codified law and there are always victims, which could even be the citizens at large.

It is probably shocking in the extreme that a senior legal council can put his signature to a document implying the non-criminality of corruption while the country has the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Act (PCCA) on its statute book.

And the PCCA in fact states in its preamble: “The illicit acquisition of personal wealth can be particularly damaging to democratic institutions, national economies, ethical values and the rule of law.”

In the relevant charges involved in the proposed prosecution of Mr Zuma in 2009 “victims” could have ranged from private companies competing in rigged tender processes to, in the words of senior prosecutor Billy Downer, “the general public”.

On top of this, Lawson Naidoo, the executive secretary for the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, pointed out that South Africa was a signatory to the UN Convention against Corruption, the African Union (AU) Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, as well as the Protocol Against Corruption of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

“So are you saying that the AU and SADC are now following something that is Western,” he asked.

Constitution and its institutions

Contrary to what Messrs Zuma and Hulley seem to think, the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, whose report on Nkandla triggered that controversy, last week told the Crime Stoppers International Conference in Cape Town: The South African constitution is specifically designed to combat corruption, as it does not allow the executive arm of government, parliament or the judiciary to make unilateral decisions and all have to be accountable.

It was time to take a hard-line approach towards a number of things. The constitution and rule of law needed to be respected and accountability enforced, she said.

It is ironic that the Hulley document also refers to a United States court case in which the then President Richard Nixon argued the president is exempt from legal process. However, not only did Nixon lose the case, he then faced the prospect of impeachment and resigned as president. Mr Zuma, in turn, has been shielded against the introduction of impeachment proceedings by the ANC’s majority in parliament.

International debate

There has been an ongoing debate for many years in international legal and academic circles about the question whether corruption is a Western concept. Often it is argued that in ‘traditional societies’ with a ‘gift culture’ there is a different understanding of civil responsibilities and etiquette.

There is, however, always the danger that the culture could mutate into systemic corruption, and an article in the Asia-Pacific Development Journal of 2000 warns: "Systematic corruption is very difficult to overcome and it can have a devastating effect on the economy."

In the words of TI on the subject of maintaining healthy institutions: “Corruption is where temptation meets tolerance and permissiveness, and people are as corrupt as the system allows them to be."

The website Debate wise also cautions: “The very idea of corruption is unethical, regardless of one’s tradition. Cultural relativism is just an attempt to legitimise corruption by the corrupted.”

Describing corruption as a Western concept also strengthens Western society’s sense of superiority. As Peter Larmour describes it on an Australian academic website: “... cultural relativism as another kind of Western naivety and condescension towards non-Western societies. The West ... imagines the latter societies as incapable of telling right from wrong ...”

But maybe the final word on the subject should go to another African, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who, when talking about the distinction between gifts and bribes, said:

“I shudder at how an integral aspect of our culture could be taken as the basis for rationalising otherwise despicable behaviour. In the African concept of appreciation and hospitality, the gift is usually a token. It is not demanded. The value is usually in the spirit rather than in the material worth. It is usually done in the open, and never in secret. Where it is excessive, it becomes an embarrassment and it is returned. If anything, corruption has perverted and destroyed this aspect of our culture.”

by Piet Coetzer

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