Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

As South Africans watch the different judicial inquiries and see the ugly face of systemic corruption, we need to use this crisis to self-reflect. Here are some pointers that might help us see the bigger picture.

We now know that state capture — abuse of power for private gain by public officials — has been enabled and enhanced by corporate capture. The idea that “government is corrupt” but “business is clean”, has fallen flat on its face. It takes two to tango. What makes the corporate complicity so much more painful, is that those who are in the business of assurance (auditing) and whom we should trust (banks, financiers), apparently played key enabling roles for corruption.

The consequence is a vicious cycle: where confidence in clean government and policy certainty drops, investment slows down. And where corruption infiltrates whole systems, trust is eroded, again inhibiting business confidence and action.

All the hearings must still find their painfully slow way towards the courts. There are simply too many cases and of too high complexity for the current state organs to handle

The cost of state and corporate capture is much higher than merely money lost via embezzlement. There is the huge unknown of missed opportunities, which is impossible to quantify. One might conservatively guess that SA has forgone 1.5% to 2% of GDP growth over the last seven years, especially if the lost economic opportunities of dysfunctional state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are counted in.

In a constitutional democracy, there is a very special role for institutions set up to limit power abuse and to ensure that the law is respected and upheld without fear or favour.

The worst legacy of the Zuma era is not Nkandla or the Guptas per se, but compromised institutions — from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to Sars and the SA Police Services. The controls were weakened to create a protected free-for-all zone, occupied by those inside the privileged network.

If there were a legal category such as “moral treason”, it would be an apt item on a Zuma-and-friends’ charge sheet. It will take much longer than those “wasted nine years” (as Ramaphosa put it) to restore our institutions and our confidence in them.

The Good Book has been proven right again: love of money is the root of all evil. Both “Zuma” (a metaphor for the corrupt public-sector network) and the (Gavin) Watsons believe in two things: God, and the power of money. The lay preacher from Nkandla and the praying family from Port Elizabeth could allegedly bribe and steal with open eyes.

It teaches us that human nature is easily lured into falsehoods covered by banknotes. And that fundamentalist religion with a touch of the prosperity dogma, may turn into a social evil.

Please do not come with the naïve mantra of ‘self-correction’. That is a serious over-estimation of a party’s moral power when political stakes are high. None of this ‘correction’ would have been contemplated without investigative journalists.

The idea that “the ANC is not on trial” is a misrepresentation. Not only did bad people end up in responsible positions (cadre deployment as approved by the National Executive Committee), but Zuma himself was vigorously defended despite overwhelming evidence and court rulings that he was unfit to hold presidential office.

Our race-based ideological fault lines run too deeply for this to have a marked  effect on voter patterns in May this year — but there is a massive responsibility for Ramaphosa to explain his personal and his party’s inaction in those wasted years.

And please do not come with the naïve mantra of “self-correction”. That is a serious over-estimation of a party’s moral power when political stakes are high. None of this “correction” would have been contemplated without investigative journalists who told the broad public what party insiders always knew.

All the hearings must still find their painfully slow way towards the courts. There are simply too many cases and of too high complexity for the current state organs to handle. It is crucial that there are consequences for proven wrong-doing.

We therefore need a special public-private investigative capacity (a redeeming chance for the auditors!) serving dedicated court processes to run hearings efficiently. The days of people being  rewarded for wrongdoing, or endlessly delaying legal processes, must stop.

 SA stands at a crossroads: we will either slide further into a contaminating moral malaise in which everybody feels entitled and even obliged to break the law and take short cuts “not to miss out”; or we decisively show a collective will to  turn the tide personally and institutionally.

The initial signs are promising. Patience is required. (No tax revolt, yet. Let us use the democratic processes). Our honest politicians and civil servants need public support. Those businesses who up their governance and show respect for clients, should be supported. And courageous whistle-blowers must be honored by a president we are proud to follow, irrespective of our party loyalties.

It must again feel good to be good.

• Naude is professor of ethics and director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School.