Saturday, 9 July 2016

Corrupt Governance as a Consequence of Fear of Change

Apartheid was bad. If that's a controversial statement for you, then you may not be ready for what follows.

One way that apartheid is not often presented, though, is as a form of corruption. There are already enough bad things to say about it, so this seldom seems necessary to add, but I think it's useful to frame it that way, to compare with current national problems we face.

Apartheid can be seen as nepotism on an unusually massive scale: Ensuring the financial and political success of "your people" over anyone else. Unlike the usual individual-level acts we normally associate with nepotism (giving a less qualified person a position or perk, contrary to official requirements), apartheid went a few levels further, ensuring that only the desired people could even become qualified, and that the undesired majority wouldn't just be deprived of jobs, but of all sorts of resources, right down to their choice of homes. Apartheid enshrined pro-white nepotism as the official requirement to follow, not something contrary to it.

There was also, of course, plenty of conventional, "lesser" government corruption by the apartheid government, and it's ridiculous to say that things only became corrupt here after 1994. And yet, it's become widespread, almost cliche, for white South Africans today to bemoan current government corruption, with the implication that this is a new, black thing.

And of course, not all whites opposed to government corruption have consciously racist motives, and of course we'd all be better off, black and white, if corruption was ended. It's a good goal. And it's hard to argue that certain individuals are anything but obviously corrupt. The trouble is, most white South Africans don't seem to see, in the bigger picture, how they're indirectly complicit in corrupt systems, and are often making it easier for corrupt officials to justify their actions.

Consider this: Service delivery protests have become so routine in South Africa that the media no longer bothers to cover the smaller ones at all, and usually only covers larger ones if there's an element of violence (because that sells better, apparently). This is ordinary black South Africans, complaining to the government that they should be providing the essential services a modern state is supposed to. Water. Electricity. Housing. Sanitation. Education.

You don't see white people staging service delivery protests, though, because for the most part, we're still fine. The buckling of the electricity grid over the last few years was one major exception. Apart from that, white South Africans are as comfortable (if not as happy) as ever. Whites like to whine a lot, but we have little to drive us to take any greater action, because the status quo still measurably favours us. We remain more employed than other race groups, better paid, better educated, and still tend to live in the best-resourced areas. We know this isn't a coincidence; this is exactly what apartheid was designed to produce.

Note that white incomes started going down back in the '80s, and went up again from 1994. Black income can fairly be characterised as "pretty damn flat".
Source: The Economist

"But the government and/or the ANC is black!", white people often shout at me. And it's not a crazy question to ask (provided you re-word it into a question): Why is the black-majority post-1994 government not doing much more - as much as possible - to bring about racial equality at an economic level? Why not push with maximum urgency for the full extent of the goals set out in the Freedom Charter? Why hold back?

Explanation 1 makes no sense at all: That they hate the wider black population as much as the unapologetically racist apartheid government did. I reject this out of hand.

Explanation 2 is that too many key government officials have become corrupt, and are now more interested in their own pockets than in the bigger project of nationwide equality. There's certainly some evidence of this, but it's an incomplete explanation, if you look at it closely. How would so many people get so corrupt so quickly? The racist assumption (sometimes subtly hinted at, sometimes stated plainly) is that it's a "black" thing, that whites are inherently more law-abiding, or shit like that. As my opening paragraphs illustrate, the apartheid government was no stranger to corruption, same as anywhere around the world. This explanation also always glosses over one very important follow-up question: Who's paying the bribes? Corruption takes two. A corrupt government dealing only with lawful entities will never have any chance to act corruptly.

And this leads me to explanation 3: White people. And here it gets a little complicated, and it's easy to see why even well-meaning people don't naturally come to this conclusion, and how less well-meaning people can use that to conceal selfish intentions. I'd even say this explanation starts out with good intentions, probably.

In the late '80s and early '90s, when it became accepted that South Africa would become democratic, there wasn't just a simple hand-over of power. There were years of negotiations, some public and well-recorded, others private, informal and maybe not recorded at all. The bottom line of these negotiations was that white South Africans would be welcomed to stay and participate in the democracy, keeping their experience and savings around for as long as possible, with an emphasis on stability. Nobody would benefit, it was argued, from any sort of rushed scramble. Things were generally set up to keep whites happy. Nothing was to be taken directly, nothing had to be surrendered, and very little would actually change for whites, apart from symbolic things, like the national anthem (well, part of it), the flag, and details like that. Land restitution was done on the "willing seller, willing buyer" principle, as if it were a normal market transaction, and not the compulsory return of stolen property. There would even be a government of national unity, sharing the executive branch among many parties, instead of just letting the parliamentary majority take it for themselves. This meant there were still white apartheid officials in senior posts after 1994, not to mention all the lower levels of state bureaucrats.

The only noteworthy scheme that might have cost whites anything was affirmative action (and its sequels, BEE and BBBEE), but this is pretty heavily over-hyped. It only applies to state employers, and to private employers looking for state money, which immediately makes it irrelevant to a large number of employers. It's also had virtually no impact on white employment rates, which have remained comfortably above 90% for decades, while black employment rates have wobbled wildly in the 60%s and 70%s (and as the graph above shows, black incomes also didn't suddenly rocket with the adoption of affirmative action. White fears of afirmative action turning us all into paupers never materialised; meanwhile, black South Africans have not really gained that much from it. I think it's a reasonable, fair policy, but clearly not enough on its own.

(I'm focusing solely on race in this post, but note that there's definitely a similar pattern along gender lines too. The apartheid people were total misogynists, and only ever gave white women the vote to try to undermine growing cooperation between feminist and Africanist movements, and all the economic stats for women are now predictably always worse than average. Homosexuality remained a criminal offence until 1994. Non-christians didn't get much respect either. This system was shit for most people, and all of those consequences need to be dealt with too. For simplicity and brevity, though, I'm keeping this post on race; assume that many of the same principles apply to other factors too.)

So, in general, the average white South African man has seen little real change in his quality of life. (But try communicate this big-picture perspective to him when he's too emotional to want to look at graphs and statistics, too biased to care if he's wrong, and too hung up on individual-level anecdotes to pay any attention to the over-all national pattern!) So how does this cause government corruption? Well, so far, it doesn't, although it should be obvious that it becomes much harder to pay for improvements for 90% of the population if you're not allowed to significantly reduce the unbalanced, excessive spending on the other 10%.

Another part of the "keep whites happy" compromises of the '90s was not aimed at individuals like me, but at business. The private sector isn't elected, it isn't ANC, it isn't black (and again, the handful of anomalous exceptions you can point to don't override the broader patterns). Very often, it isn't even South African, and the mining sector especially has been channelling billions to mainly British and American shareholders for over a century.

And that's why explanation 2 doesn't make full sense on its own: Because it ignores that the people paying the bribes are still predominantly wealthy whites, and without that influence, there would be little a corrupt government official could achieve. It may have started with big-scale scandals, and it may be most obvious with truly evil abuses, but it continues a bit at a time whenever any one of us uses our greater wealth to elbow our way through life. This is just as true of the times we do so illegally (like when we bribe a traffic cop to escape a ticket) and the times we're technically, legally doing nothing wrong (like paying domestic workers as little as possible, or hiring top teachers away from government schools to more expensive private schools). We all know people who boast about it, and often we even benefit from it indirectly. During my undergrad years, for example, we had plenty of parties in big, expensive, Northern Suburbs houses that later turned out to have been funded by guys ripping off a rural employment scheme in the Free State - and the faces in the photos from those events all look pretty uniformly white. We may not have committed the crime, but we undeniably benefitted from it. And those black women in rural FS undeniably lost their livelihoods. It's one case that encapsulates everything I'm trying to say here.

In effect, white South Africa has spent the last 22 years paying to keep things from changing, to keep from having to sacrifice any level of comfort, rather than paying to bring about the changes that will make things more fair and just. It seems like a bad deal to me.

A lot of commercial and social media outrage has gone into condemning the corruption accusations associated with the India-based Gupta family, and I have to agree that these have been pretty egregious. But they're also something of an exception; most corrupt businesses that we know of are not Indian. I almost get the feeling that, in some circles, the outrage against the Guptas is less about the specific things they've done, and more about how they've gate-crashed someone else's corrupt turf, and spoiled the party by failing to conceal things the way their predecessors did. (Cultural differences... what you gonna do?)

I suppose this also partly reflects the big spike in Asian South African wealth on that graph; wealthy whites have hardly set a good example for the even smaller Indian minority.

This is not the easiest problem in the world to visualise. It's a puzzle with a lot of different pieces, some in different rooms, and some in different times. I've tried to lay it out as neatly as possible here. And I think the one feasible solution I can see in all of it, is for white South Africans to admit we're still fucking things up (whether intentionally or not), and stop trying to control the national narrative. We basically have to shut up, stand back, and let ordinary black South Africans lead the way. We should have done that decades ago already.