By Melusi Ncala
First published in City Press

The real, unavoidable tragedy of corruption in any society is its sociopolitical effect. The poor lose out and the well connected, politically or otherwise, gain at their expense.

This is notable in Transparency International’s 2017 study, which links corruption and socio-economic disparities based on the Corruption Perception Index and the Social Inclusion Index.

It was evident the countries that performed poorly in terms of levels of corruption and socio-economic inequalities were those where the wealthy possessed extraordinary riches and the poor languished in squalor and poverty.

Corruption, ill-gotten gain, fraud, irregular expenditure, abuse of power, bribery and more – these can easily become mere buzz words or conversation starters as people absorb the accounts of various forms of each that most of us have experienced or are guilty of to some degree.

But it takes exposure to more than 24 000 reported cases of corruption in an organisation such as Corruption Watch to be able to fathom how pervasive graft is and to link it to the vulnerable South Africans who continue to struggle decades after the dawn of democracy.

Several years ago I came to grasp – both personally and professionally – the true meaning of corruption and the helplessness of a family like mine in seeking to hold a wrongdoer to account. My mother, our family’s breadwinner, an activist at heart and a courageous woman, sought to fend for us and our impoverished community by applying for a tender to service the local municipality’s roads and storm water drains. As many start-up entities in that position have come to know so well, her bid was rejected.

Being the tenacious woman she was, she took on the big dog, the municipality, by voicing her dissatisfaction and displeasure at losing the bid to what would later be revealed as a somewhat dodgy business from outside the Lesedi region, where the project was to be based.

She highlighted that the municipality had overlooked key submissions from her company in bidding for the tender. The municipality eventually relented and an arrangement was made in which her company became part of a joint venture with a white-owned business that had a decade-long history of scoring multimillion-rand contracts from the municipality.

Thus began a very hard lesson and a bitter pill to swallow regarding justice (or the lack thereof) for my mother and the hard-working people she sought to employ. The joint venture partner often grumbled about the municipality’s insistence on the two companies collaborating. He said there was scant chance that a woman-run operation could cope in this field. More importantly, he feared his profits would take a significant dive for he had a reputation for not paying labourers their due. However, my mother was intent on making a success of the roadworks project by employing, and fairly remunerating, local men and women.

As soon as funds were deposited into the joint bank account, money meant for the tender project was withdrawn. Despite a clear requirement for both signatories to approve any withdrawals, there was no consent sought from my mother’s side.

Stunned by this brazen misconduct, my mother – with my help – brought the deceitful act to the bank’s attention. When we got no joy at branch level, we escalated our complaint to the bank’s head office and, eventually, filed a case with the SA Police Service (SAPS).

Alas, the documented proof and audio recordings in our arsenal, wherein the business partner was belligerent and confessed to withdrawing the funds, did little to move the bigger dogs: the bank – an employee of which was complicit in this crime – or the police’s commercial crimes unit.

In fact, a senior police officer confessed that we indeed had a legitimate case, but because he was undermined as a black SAPS employee, there was little he could do to ensure his subordinate did not flout the investigative process. What that officer will never know is that his feeling of helplessness resonated with me for I was never acknowledged in interactions we had with various people as we fought for justice. I was merely the “blind guy” to whom people spoke indirectly through others: “Tell him I say …”

It felt as though no one cared that a gross crime had been committed or that, as a result, the livelihoods of other breadwinners in the joint venture’s employ were negatively affected as they now could not feed their families.

My work as a researcher for Corruption Watch has revealed that 6% of the more than 5 300 cases of corruption received in 2017 implicate local municipal officials and that slightly more than 31% of those relate to procurement irregularities. This evil is pervasive in both the public sector and private sector and no matter how we might try to spin it, as we jostle for the moral high ground, it is unequivocally wrong. It is wrong for elected officials to empty the public purse into their personal bank accounts and those of their colleagues, friends and relatives.

It is equally reprehensible for the same elected officials to conspire, prioritising personal interests, in ransacking state coffers meant to improve state functioning and benefit all people. It is just as illegal for the private sector to circumvent the laws of the country – thereby normalising corrupt behaviour – to feed its rapacity.

Moreover, it is questionable of the rest of us to skirt around the issue of private sector graft just because, as a society, we have not engaged constructively on issues of white privilege and racism. When we do so, we isolate a huge constituency of the public and it fuels feelings of contempt and, more crucially, apathy towards dealing with the corrupt among us. That business partner was not prosecuted or even slightly reprimanded for his criminal behaviour. His great inconvenience was that he was notified of a case filed with the police and this only raised his ire, which led to my mother being harassed. And after all of that, it was business as usual for him as he was granted more tenders for that municipality and others across the province.

So, as I hear and read of all of these accounts by whistle-blowers and analyse tens of thousands of reports of corruption regularly, I sadly replay those dark days in my mind for I see many other black women in the same position as my late mother. I agonise over the consequence of the families’ lives that are decimated by greed.

I then ask myself, how much more are we willing to allow corruption to corrode our moral, social and economic fabric.