Race and corruption: It’s neither a black thing nor a white thing

POLITICAL corruption is a global pandemic – the difference is that on the one hand African leaders drive old smokey ‘skorokoros’ and on the other hand the smokelessness, silence and speed of some of the post-colonial powers could (and often does) mean that they drive Teslas on the old corruption highway. Put differently, the ex-colonial forces have only morphed and moved into more sophisticated corruption vehicles where corrupt relationships are given de facto legal status, campaigns are financed in lieu of legislative concessions and, in some cases, certain businesses are favoured.

In its most broad definition corruption is pursuing illegitimate personal interests that are contrary to the common interest. Laws aim to codify this principle. However, laws themselves can be flawed, biased and unjust both intentionally and unintentionally. I often lament our obsession with and nitpicking of breaches of laws and regulations, having little regard for its substance and whether it actually achieves its purpose, which at its core is fairness and justice. It is the law after all, so it must be right.

On the other extreme, we may justify or ignore injustice because there is no law prohibiting such behaviour. However, I would argue that just because something is legal in form does not mean it is not corrupt in substance. Lest we forget – colonisation, slavery and apartheid were legal. The ANC routinely hides behind the thin veil of legality when called upon to deal with corrupt senior officials.

Despite my views on the listener’s question, I stuck to my narrative that we should not let race distract us from fighting corruption because to do that would be like a person who spots her house on fire and instead of putting it out, sits back and says, “Hey look! Down this street, there are a few more houses on fire, there is no need to panic.” 

We should not reduce the volume when speaking out against corruption in our country or across the African continent. It is unfortunate that oftentimes African leaders rise to power and instead of raising the standard and undoing colonial exploitation (no matter how deep the rabbit hole), they perpetuate it by relying on flimsy arguments like they (the colonisers) did it and now it is our turn, thereby hamstringing our people and progress, I responded to the listener.

However, before we get carried away by a self-righteous wave, I want to point out that most of us are complicit in corruption, and not just our leaders, by perpetuating the colonial corruption project. “What! How?” you ask. Well, we have renamed roads and buildings but left the infrastructure of colonial corruption spray-painted with a different hue. 

“Colonialism and apartheid were terrible!” we all chant, even the not-so-convinced Zilles join this chorus.

Corruption thrives on power imbalances as did colonialism and, in many ways, so does our economy. Exploitation and domination were the engines of colonisation, very much like the current engine of our economy.

Whereas in the past, white was the hue of domination and black of exploitation, and while it does still exist in this dichotomy, there is a new hue where these two are now wrapped with the cloth of elitism adorned with a dash of black.

One example of this glaring collective corruption is how domestic workers are exploited in the pursuit of corrupt comforts and economic expediency.

A more refined or sophisticated version of the times when female slaves had to breastfeed babies, a practice known as wet nursing. The practice was an excuse for many white mothers to avoid breastfeeding with hopes of maintaining their “stature” and avoiding the “messy” part of motherhood. In its extreme form, this practice resulted in white kids being nourished at the expense of black kids who sometimes died of malnutrition.

“South African colonialism wrecked the people’s economy, disrupted their long-established trading networks, destroyed their social system, obliterated their political structures and robbed them of their independence,” writes John Laband in his book “The Land Wars”. Of course, that is not happening any more, but I would suggest a more sophisticated form of this corruption continues. 

The slave masters are no longer just white, but black and white. Black women are still leaving their children at home unattended in pursuit of economic sustenance – working long hours, often staying with the “master” under hostile conditions, doing undesirable work, and paid peanuts, some proudly say they pay in pine nuts which, on closer inspection, is really minimum or just above minimum wage, but certainly not a living wage.

And with the highest fatherlessness rates in sub-Saharan Africa, our fathers are not available to cushion the blow. Devastatingly, the hue of the oppressor has changed, but the oppressed child remains black. Convenience makes us complicit, corrupt and cold.

Look around you. Our corrupt heritage is one where everything bows the knee to wealth creation and comfort. The few rich dominate, and the rest are, well – disposable. Mothers included. If a mother is being exploited so are her children and, specifically in South Africa, so are her elderly parents who rely on her, highlighting “black tax”.

Countless studies point to kids without parents at home being more prone to poverty, being high school dropouts, given to violent outbursts, criminal activity and substance abuse. Yet we glare dumbfounded with gaping mouths when we hear that we have the third-highest crime rates in the world, gender-based violence is skyrocketing, we are among the highest alcohol abusers and the most unequal society in the world.    

While we celebrate the long-overdue landmark Constitutional Court ruling that overturned the law that made domestic workers the only group of employees who couldn’t claim compensation in the event of injury or death, the corrupt domestic worker economic structure alone continues to screw up our country. 

Frankly, unless you smoke something very strong, you must admit our current problems are bigger than the government. Forget the government, we as citizens are sleeping at the wheel. “The government will fix it!” we console ourselves or “the government should fix it!” Wrong! A country is as good as its people. Lamentably, colonisation didn’t just corrupt our land, it also corrupted our minds.

Much like the colonial masters, we have become a society that worships comfort and exploits the vulnerable as a sign of progress. We were vocal against this injustice until we ourselves tasted the fruit from the addictive tree of benefiting from the misery of the vulnerable.

We have become addicts campaigning for the shutting down of bottle stores as we gulp from our bottles. 

Remember corruption is pursuing illegitimate personal interests at the expense of the common good. Are you corrupt? How you view and treat domestic workers ought to help you answer that question.

Themba Dlamini is a chartered accountant, speaker, author and founder of Melanation Media, with a passion for dismantling toxic masculinity, systemic racism and fatherlessness through thought-provoking stories which challenge these narratives.