Few would have thought it possible to surprise South Africans, in a country already saturated with reports of corruption and State Capture. Nevertheless, the Bosasa revelations at the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture did just that. As we collectively plumb the depths of corrupt, neo-patrimonial politics, one thing has become clear: The South African state remains rotten to the core and only a powerful shock treatment will restore its integrity.

Angelo Agrizzi’s testimony detailed the extraordinary system of bribes that sustained Bosasa’s rise to ubiquity in public procurement. More than anything, it exposed the chilling normality, the everyday quality and the brazenness of corruption at the highest level of the state — with piles of cash exchanged frequently at Nomvula Mokonyane’s home in Bryanston, at restaurants in shopping centres and on quiet suburban sidewalks.

Importantly, it dispelled the notion that State Capture was the result of only a single family’s grand scheme to control the Zuma administration. The Gupta family may have been the most accomplished players of the game, but there were many others on the field. Corruption is deep-rooted in the state, permeates every level of the bureaucracy and is completely normalised and routine.

It has become trite, of course, to lament the scale of corruption or to proclaim that it must be stopped. There is little need to repeat what everyone already knows, what has fuelled popular anger since the #GuptaLeaks were first exposed. Surprisingly, though, less time has been spent on what exactly needs to be done to eradicate corruption and prevent similar abuses of power in the future.

Although fighting corruption has become the leitmotif of the national election campaign, with every party — including the ANC — foregrounding its commitment to clean government, it is rare for politicians to specify their exact proposals. Most promise prosecutions, to “hold corrupt officials accountable,” and to restore the enforcement capacity of the NPA, the Hawks and other agencies.

Occasionally, old ideas are floated to address the causes of corruption more directly — barring public officials from doing business with the state (a promise that the ANC has made before, but which has never been enforced in practice), or preventing candidates with criminal records from occupying elected office.

But these are limited measures. It is indeed tempting to conclude that if the Gupta brothers, Gavin Watson, Nomvula Mokonyane and even Jacob Zuma were convicted for their crimes, the battle against corruption would be won. The truth, however, is more complex and difficult to confront. While the furore has been dominated by a moralistic view of corruption, with public anger focused on individual perpetrators who are seen as immoral and unscrupulous, less attention has been paid to the structural conditions that make corruption inevitable and widespread.

In nature, “isomorphic mimicry” is the term used to describe the strategy of one organism mimicking another in order to gain an evolutionary advantage. For example, the venom of the Eastern Coral Snake is deadly enough to kill a human being. The Scarlet King Snake, wise to this fact, has developed a banded red, yellow and black colouring to resemble its poisonous relative almost exactly. It looks like a deadly snake, but in fact, has no venom at all.

The hard truth is that many parts of the South African state have come to represent nothing more than isomorphic mimicry. They look like functional entities serving the public, with thousands of employees supposedly carrying out technical roles such as “assistant director for internal audit” or “supply chain officer”, but are not, in fact, serving the public at all.

The police wear uniforms, set up roadblocks, and look like police officers anywhere in the world, but are often, in fact, subverting justice and perpetuating corruption and insecurity. Civil servants and elected officials arrive at their offices every day, with their names and titles on the door, and proceed — largely unmonitored and unseen — to do little of what their contract requires.

The state has, to a large extent, ceased to be a state, while continuing to go through state-like motions. This is a much deeper problem, and one which cannot be addressed by prosecuting a few high-profile figures or changing a rule in the Executive Ethics Code. Tinkering on the surface will not fix an institutional architecture that is bloated, misdirected and inefficient. In short, putting the icing on top will not change a rotten cake.

What needs to be done, and what no politician has expressly committed themselves to, is a profound shock treatment to repurpose the state.

At the heart of the State Capture and corruption lie the dual pathologies of cadre deployment and the use of the state to drive job creation. The roots of these pathologies, in turn, lie deep in the nationalist apartheid regime, which used a large state apparatus — including state-owned enterprises such as Sasol and Eskom — to create sheltered employment for white South Africans in an economy under siege.

The enormous apartheid bureaucracy which emerged after 1948 was necessary for two reasons: First, to engineer a racially stratified and securitised state through systematic and far-reaching interventions in society, and second, to provide preferential employment to white Afrikaners. The racist policy of job reservation (which prevented the state from hiring black candidates), combined with a relentless expansion of the civil service, led to a bloated and largely incompetent bureaucracy.

After the end of apartheid and the assumption of power by the ANC in 1994, the public service underwent a major period of reform — both to reorganise the country into a unitary central government, absorbing the former homeland institutions and creating nine new provinces, and to change the mostly white, nationalist-aligned character of the bureaucracy.

This was a necessary exercise, and a wholesale reform of the government was achieved in relatively little time. But some of the old, entrenched features of the public service remained the same. While the bureaucracy was transformed on the surface, the process failed to dislodge two destructive institutions: Cadre deployment, which now manifests in the appointment of ANC loyalists to positions throughout government, and a reliance on the expansion of the public service to drive job creation in an otherwise lukewarm economy.

Of course, if the apparatus of government is designed to reward or appease party members and supporters, it is not focused on providing effective services to the poor. It is instead manipulated to serve other instrumental purposes.

This is the crux of the matter. The failure to create growth outside the public sector led, most notably while Zuma was in power, to a rush on the state coffers and a reliance on the government for employment and advancement. Positions in the public service have come to be viewed as a way to secure limited power and wealth, rather than an opportunity to provide a necessary skill or to serve the public.

Throughout the public service, in both elected and appointed positions, there is a corrosive culture of self-promotion and enrichment. The many good, honest public servants who remain are routinely silenced, side-lined, and suffocated.

The resulting corruption is normalised. Perhaps the greatest problem of all is that many of those who facilitate corruption do not believe that they are doing anything wrong. They are merely doing what everyone else is doing, or doing what they must to get ahead, or finally getting what they deserve.

This is the structural problem that must be addressed if we are to end corruption in government. We need to purge the state of corrupt and incompetent officials, and then rebuild it by creating a professional and meritocratic public service. The state must be fundamentally repurposed to serve the people.

This requires a very different set of interventions from the prevailing approach, which views State Capture as a story of heroes and villains, of “good” and “bad” people. In this simplistic paradigm, the answer must be to prosecute and hold individuals accountable. Of course, tighter and more effective enforcement of the law is necessary. But the risk is that we will overlook the systemic reasons for pervasive corruption, and that the government will get away with merely instituting a few high-profile prosecutions and claim to have solved the problem.

Even if corrupt individuals are convicted and jailed, others will take their place — so long as the system remains the same. A far-reaching structural reform of the public service, which ends the use of public procurement to empower businesses, formalises recruitment processes, fully centralises authority for tender awards and drastically reduces the size of underperforming government departments, is the only cure to this ailment.

But who will have the courage to do that? 

DM

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