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The truth has been captured by corrupt, opportunistic SA leaders

- William Gumede

Many public figures increasingly, not only outrightly lie on public platforms, but dress up lies as if these are truths.

Corruption has become so systemic that political, traditional and religious truths, sayings and ideologies are now being perverted by the corrupt to deflect, cover up and defend wrongdoing.    

This means South Africa’s public discourse, discussions and debate are now increasingly corrupted. In fact, large aspects of South Africa’s public sphere – the discourse, discussions and debates - have now been “captured”, like parts of the ANC, the state and business.

South Africa’s public discourse, discussions and debates are increasingly irrational, without integrity and dishonest. Sadly, naïve, desperate and vulnerable South Africans are often taken in by the manipulation of truths, sayings and ideologies to support corrupt leaders, their actions and behavior. And by doing so, undermining their own well-being.

In a society with high levels of illiteracy, where large numbers of people are closed-minded and many more are desperate to accept simple black and white explanations for their causes of their problems, many are easily fooled by the manipulation of truths, sayings and ideologies by opportunistic leaders.   

It is very crucial for effective government, business and civil society decision-making, policy formulation and implementation that claims made by governing leaders are truthful, have integrity and are evidence-based, unless wrong statements are honest mistakes.

Legitimate historical redress needs, such as land reform, economic empowerment and gender equality are increasingly being captured, manipulated for self-enrichment, to deflect from wrongdoing and cover-up corruption. For example, former Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane at the Zondo commission into corruption said criticisms of her receiving expensive gifts from Bosasa when she was a Cabinet minister was because she was a woman.

Struggle slogans, rhetoric and beliefs are also increasingly appropriated by the dishonest, corrupt and incompetent to mobilize the masses for similar opportunistic reasons. And also often used by opportunists to boost their popularity and chances of being elected or appointed to public office.

The term black economic empowerment, intended to empower previously disadvantaged black people, have now become so abused by political capitalists, the corrupt and self-serving, that in many cases it is now a metaphor for gross looting.

Blaming “white monopoly capital”, the short-hand for white-owned companies, have increasingly also been used, for similar self-enrichment – making the term meaningless now.

Former President ANC and South African Jacob Zuma in his response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s open letter to ANC members to tell them that the ANC is “Accused Number 1” in the dock for corruption, is a case in point. 

Zuma astonishingly accused Ramaphosa of seeking “white validation” and turning the ANC into a tool for “white monopoly capital” for acknowledging the systemic corruption in the ANC itself. Zuma said very little of the “wasted years” of his presidency when conservatively more than R2-Trillion may have been wasted through corruption, state-owned company bailouts and corrupt BEE deals.

Supposed “concern” for the poor, vulnerable and the marginalized are also now routinely used as a fig-leaf to cover up corrupt actions, self-enrichment and to deflection from wrongdoing. In many cases, it should be assumed that public figures mean the opposite of what they say. 

Throughout the hearings of the Zondo inquiry into corruption, corrupt public servants and politicians unashamedly lie to cover-up their wrongdoings, deflect criticisms of their appalling actions on the fact that they are “black” or women or machinations of so-called white monopoly capital who allegedly opposes their “good” fight to protect the interests of the poor masses.

Even social justice terms have in many cases become so perverted, stripped of their original intended meaning, by the corrupt, that they have become meaningless. 

The concepts of community development, community capacity-building and corporate social responsibility have now also been manipulated for self-enrichment. Corrupt individuals are increasingly setting up “NGOs”, to get government to corruptly channel government and corporate funds to such “NGOs” under the guise of community “development”, “empowerment” and “corporate social responsibility”.

In some communities corrupt individuals set up “civil society” organisations in the guise of “concerned” “community” organisations to specifically secure bribes from local businesses, and extract rents from legitimate government and private sector development projects.

Traditional and cultural institutions beliefs, sayings and assumptions are often also manipulated to enrich an elite corrupt traditional leaders, chiefs and political leaders. Worse, increasingly self-interested traditional leaders, chiefs and king invent new traditions, customs and cultures to use to strengthen their own power. For example, some corrupt public officials claim falsely that receiving gifts for public “services” rendered is acceptable in their version of African culture.

Even religious beliefs, sayings and truths now been increasingly captured, with opportunists abusing the trust of the spiritually desperate to enrich themselves. “Pastors”, under the guise of serving the spiritual needs of the desperate, are perverting religious beliefs, sayings and truths to extract the money for themselves from congregants genuinely seeking spiritual answers to their pressing problems. 

The corruption of South Africa’s public discourse, discussions and debate undermines effective policy-making, choice of public priorities and growth. It will also undermine the Covid-19 economic recovery.  

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was first published in Times Select.