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By Kavisha Pillay

South Africa has always been a melting pot of many cultures. Its ethnic diversity has contributed to the colourful rainbow nation, and has led to tolerance of difference. Culture is part of our daily lives; it contributes to our behaviour patterns, the food we eat, the clothes we wear. But one culture that has become increasingly present in the day-to-day lives of South Africans is corruption. Bribing police officers has become a norm for many and greasing the palms of public officials is regarded by some as standard business practice. The question is to what extent does a country’s culture influence corruption among its population? Listen to this being discussed on Talk Radio 702 here.

The rotten apple

American National Bureau of Economic Research economists Ray Fisman and Edward Miguel, from Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively, have developed an analogy that illustrates the influence of a country’s culture on corrupt inhabitants. Culture can be defined as the collectively shared beliefs about right and wrong and what is permitted and what is not. Given this, corruption is not purely a case of rotten apples. Rather, the barrel or orchard is contaminated. Corruption can be ingrained in an environment, so that everyone is infected. As humidity influences the extent of rot in apples, the air quality in an organisation – the organisational culture – influences the extent of corruption among employees who are continuously breathing it.

Gift-giving vs bribery

Alwyn Moerdyk, a lecturer in organisational psychology at Rhodes University, says that culture is often used to explain or excuse acts of corruption. Some societies claim that gift-giving is “part of our culture” and outsiders should not confuse it with bribery. Moerdyk notes that the act of giving is a natural process for humans and is an expression of gratitude for a benefit received or to cement a relationship. But the size of the gift, or the context in which it was given, may make that gift a bribe. Gifts have the purpose of cementing existing relationships, whereas bribes are designed to create new relationships.

Olusegan Obasanjo, the past president of Nigeria, makes a distinction between gifts and bribes. In the African concept of appreciation and hospitality, he explains, 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.

Expert opinion

After delivering a lecture at the University of Johannesburg in April, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told reporters that corruption was becoming a social phenomenon. “There is no point in pointing fingers. [Corruption] is becoming a cultural problem in South Africa. We need to fight the culture of corruption. A culture of easy money making and not having to think hard, work hard, be clever and find an innovative way of making money.”

Public protector Thuli Madonsela noted that a culture of corruption had been allowed to grow in the public sector as a result of a “competency deficit in supply chain management, lack of respect for rules and authority, and a lack of consequences for wrong doing”.

Criminologist Dr Elisabeth Grobler strongly believes that a culture of corruption has developed in South Africa primarily because of the “ease with which it is committed due to the lack of sanction and lack of adequate institutions to deal with the investigation and conviction of this phenomenon”.

She said: “All the effective institutions that did deal effectively with corruption were shut down – such as the Scorpions and the SAPS Anti-Corruption Unit. One only has to read the newspaper regularly to be alerted to yet another corruption scandal that probably will have no negative consequences for those involved. Just the fact that public sector corruption costs the country billions of rand every year is testament to the government’s complete lack of will and ability to deal with it.”

It is evident that corruption in South Africa has become a culture among some political leaders, business people and the population. Although the environment in which we live to some extent breeds the rot, we know that there are many people who have not been consumed by the decay of ethical values. We salute those individuals and institutions that choose to break away from the culture of corruption and rather promote a culture of whistleblowing, transparency and accountability.



In some cultures, gift-giving is expected; it becomes bribery when it is done in secret, or is excessive. South Africa is a melting pot of cultures and understanding the fine line between these actions is important to understand corruption, and how it has become a culture in our country.