Corruption Watch

Lessons for South Africa from Indonesia’s anti-corruption battle

Zuma, corruption and tradition

Despite promising signs of a stronger stance against corruption since the ANC’s recent National General Council (NGC) meeting, putting an end to corrupt practices will be not easy. (Read more)

This is the message of an analysis of campaigns in Indonesia since 1998, after the fall of the authoritarian Suharto regime in that country.

The analysis by Kanti Pertiwi, a PhD candidate in Organisation Studies and Social Change at the University of Melbourne, published on The Conversation website under the title, To make people buy into fighting corruption, we first need to know how to sell it, offers some interesting perspectives, also applicable to the South African sociopolitical and cultural environment.

For one, it brings new perspective to President Jacob Zuma’s view of corruption as a “Western paradigm” and, if a crime, one with “no victims”. This is the view put forward in a 2009 memorandum to the National Prosecuting Authority of why corruption charges against Zuma in connection with the infamous arms deal should be dropped.

We here offer a shortened version, with some commentary, of Pertiwi’s analysis in which he probes the question of why the Indonesian anti-corruption campaigns don’t seem to be working very well.

Is corruption evil?

Anti-corruption campaigns in Indonesia follow a dominant world view that sees corruption as something evil, painting corruption as an extraordinary crime, carried out by greedy people.

But the anti-corruption messages neglect local cultural norms and values. In its design it imports an understanding of practices labelled as corrupt from Western countries, which generally value individualism and are not averse to conflict.

It’s difficult to apply these notions in local anti-corruption campaigns, without taking into account the complexities of values, such as collectivism and social harmony that exist in countries like Indonesia.

This lack of cultural sensitivity has created fear and discomfort, demonised certain cultural practices and genuine intentions, with a far from desirable outcome. A greater sensitivity to context is needed to effectively change people’s behaviour and attitudes towards corruption.

Nuances in talking about corruption

Looking at corruption from the point of view of the individual actors who encounter issues of corruption daily and have to decide what to do, Pertiwi interviewed people in government and business, as well as anti-corruption campaigners.

Those he interviewed talked about corruption with nuance. The dominant view of it as ‘evil’ is there, but it’s distant from their own lives.

They talk about corruption that is “out there”, as opposed to their own practices, which they consider as “not corruption” or “less corrupt” and therefore “not evil” or “less evil”.

They see a spectrum of ‘badness’ in practices associated with corruption. The dominant view has often missed this important insight.

He found people attached the label ‘corruption’ only to practices that are seen as excessive or of a magnitude that they consider unacceptable to them.

They determine corruption based on how ‘severe’ the act is, which depends upon group or social norms – the label ‘corruption’ does not stand on its own; it is always seen in relation to other practices.

Talking about difficulties of disengaging from ‘old’ corrupt practices, they don’t talk about “abusing power” but more about relationships and caring about others.

They use words such as “kita orang Timur” (we – people of the East), “uang ketupat” (rice cake money), “bantu” (help) and “berharap” (to expect) to illustrate that certain practices such as giving gifts to officials exist to protect relationships. Removing them would create social tensions and/or threaten people’s jobs and livelihoods.

Some argued that for “orang kita” (our people) or “orang Indonesia” (Indonesians) it is a natural call to give thanks to officials.

This resonates with the position of, and practices in relation to, traditional leaders in South Africa. Something to also keep in mind when debating the growing tension between the position of traditional leaders and the dictates of the country’s constitution.

Others said they had to turn a blind eye to questionable practices because this is what is expected of them to keep their (and other people’s) jobs.

Using a different lens

Pertiwi uses care or relational ethics as a lens to better understand people’s attitudes towards corruption. This view, which builds on the work of feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan and other scholars, challenges the dominant ethics theory that views individuals as free agents.

In ethics theory, individuals are expected to apply abstract standardised universal principles, not only to hypothetical scenarios, but also to real and often highly conflicted situations in life.

According to relational ethics, people do not make decisions based on standardised principles. Instead they base decisions on what they think is best for others and their relationships with others, emphasising the connectedness and dependencies in human life.

People affected by issues such as corruption rarely think in a linear manner of decision-making models. In making decisions people don’t usually go through a step-by-step process of defining the problem, identifying the criteria and risks involved, developing alternatives and eventually making a supposedly well-informed decision.

They are more likely guided by previous experiences and this is where identity and social relations play their role in institutionalised corruption.

“What I am seeing in my ongoing analysis is that, for people who don’t engage in corruption, their identity is built around being a change agent, being a pious person, being an example for others. Those who do engage or become complicit in corruption may see themselves as “living the norm” and see the practice as the only way “to get things moving around here”, Pertiwi writes.

Talk is cheap

One of the taglines in Indonesia’s anti-corruption campaign is “honesty is great” or jujur itu hebat.

It calls for people to rise as “heroes” and to fight corruption to the best of their abilities, even if it includes jeopardising their livelihood and other people they care about.

“But how many of us want to be the nail that sticks out to get hammered?

“I do not intend to defend ‘corruptors’. I would argue, however, that identifying existing biases and limitations is just as crucial as the effort of improving governance itself.

“The dismissive approach to local understandings of norms and culture is not helpful. If we want to make people really buy the anti-corruption fight, we first need to know how to sell it,” he concludes.

by Piet Coetzer

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