Networks of corruption more complex than many think

13th August 2010 By: Aubrey Matshiqi

The conviction of former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi raises questions about elite networks and their impact on corruption.


I must hasten to state that, while elite networks may engage in the business of accumulating ‘the means of power‘, not all of them flirt with the criminal underworld. The Selebi case is an example of the intersection of interests between political, criminal, intelligence and business networks. Put differently, Selebi's conviction raises questions about the nature of corruption in post-apartheid South Africa.


If discussions on radio talk shows and letters to newspaper editors are anything to go by, corruption in this country is either an invention of the African National Congress (ANC) or became much worse after the 1994 democratic breakthrough. Corruption is, obviously, not an invention of the ANC.


What is in dispute is whether the ANC government is more corrupt than the apartheid government was. What is indisputable is that there are greater levels of transparency today than was the case during the dark days of apartheid. Further, citizens are more critical of the manner in which State power is exercised in post-apartheid South Africa than they were before 1994. This is one of the dividends of democracy. The intellectual or emotional counterpart of the belief that the ANC is more corrpt than the National Party government is the view that the ANC was not corrupt during the liberation struggle. I do not know whether this is true or not, but I think that corruption may have been part of life in the ANC in exile and the underground.


When an organisation operates under conditions of illegality, the security measures it adopts may provide cover for those of its members who may be engaging in corrupt relationships. Also, some of its members may take the view that the means justify the ends of a just cause. When this happens, some members of organisations that are part of a just cause, or what they believe to be such a cause, may commit crimes or seek financial help from criminal networks in order to fund their operations.


When the goals of their cause have been achieved, and they have become part of political elite networks and members of government, relationships that were established with the criminal underworld during the struggle may mutate into relationships between the new political elite and members of criminal syndicates.


Alternatively, it is possible that engaging in corrupt relations during the struggle becomes so much of a habit, because of the benefits, that breaking up with criminal elements becomes too hard to do. Another possibility is that new corrupt and more lucrative relations are created after the struggle to replace old ones. Add to this the impunity that comes with the arrogance of power and you end up dealing with individuals who see corruption as either reparations or something they are entitled to because of the sacrifices they made during the struggle for freedom. Is this what happened to Selebi, or is he correct when he says that his corruption case was politically motivated? I don't know, but I am open to the possibility that his involvement in corrupt networks, on the one hand, and the idea of of Selebi as a victim of political intrigue, on the other, are not mutually exclusive.


I am not arguing that the possibility of political intrigue should be seen as evidence of Selebi's innocence. All I am saying is that the judge was not wrong to convict him but, at the same time, Selebi is probably correct to allege that the corruption investigation was partly motivated by by the vagaries of politics. However, the lesson here is that allegations of skulduggery have a better chance of surviving the test of veracity when the victim is innocent.


This notwithstanding, I have no doubt that the allegation of selective prosecutions is not completely false. It is for this reason that we must ask whether the mechanisms that are available at the moment for dealing with corruption are adequate. Do we not need to beef up our anticorruption architecture through the creation of bodies and institutions that will limit the possibility of interference by politicians and private actors?


Do we not need a special anticorruption vehicle that will operate outside the police service and the prosecution authority for a specified period? Such a vehicle could consist of a body of special investigators and prosecutors and report directly, and be answerable, to a specially created multiparty Parliamentary committee, over which the two Houses of Parliament would perform the overall oversight function. Or am I dreaming?


Dreaming or not, I am convinced that networks of corruption in this country are much more complex than we tend to think and, therefore, require an equally complex and sophisticated response.