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TODAY’s headlines offer new evidence, if we care to look, that our obsessions prevent us understanding our problems.

Date Released: Wed, 18 March 2015 21:47 +0200

TODAY’s headlines offer new evidence, if we care to look, that our obsessions prevent us understanding our problems.

The headlines announce the suspension of senior Eskom executives and the continuing battle over the leadership of the Hawks, which has now drawn in Independent Police Investigative Directorate head Robert McBride. The obsession is the assumption that, if anything goes wrong with our institutions, it must be the work of President Jacob Zuma and other African National Congress (ANC) leaders.

This is a popular theme among commentators: It requires no great thought or respect for the evidence to offer the same explanation every time and it always wins cheers. But it misses what is really happening, ensuring that there is no pressure to change. If our problem is simply the people in power, the solution is straightforward — new people must hold these positions.

But if it is really deep-rooted patterns that have emerged over years and will survive whoever is in power, we need to understand the problem before we can work out how to beat it. We can’t do that if we always blame a few political office holders.

There are times when the present leadership does find it convenient to weaken institutions — the recent appointment of a new Electoral Commission of SA commissioner, for example. But that is only part of the story. It does not explain what is happening in Eskom, or the South African Revenue Service (SARS), or the police.

There is a common pattern at SARS and Eskom. Documents show no evidence of direct involvement from political leadership at SARS. What they do show is an attempt by people engaged in illegal activity — cigarette smuggling — to remove from the revenue service key figures who were investigating them. The problem is an unholy alliance between people inside the government and people up to no good outside it.

If reports on Eskom are accurate, something similar is happening there. We are told both that the suspended executives are all in some way responsible for procurement and that there are "unlikely beneficiaries" of large Eskom contracts. It does not take much imagination to suggest that the two might be connected, although we do not know whether the suspensions make it easier or harder to use Eskom as a route to personal profit.

In both cases, an alliance between private networks trying to profit at the public expense and people in the government seems to be the reason for an attempt to weaken a key institution. There is evidence, as a column pointed out a while ago, that this is not only happening in SARS and Eskom. Corruption is not simply a problem of public servants misusing public funds — more often than not, it is about public and private actors working together to do that. It may be this country’s most effective public-private partnership.

There may be several reasons for this but one is that we have not changed patterns going back to at least the 1980s in which private and public actors worked together to misuse public resources. While some in this government are party to this, they did not invent it and it seems to be yet another case in which the elite that emerged after 1994 was more interested in joining what happened before than changing it.

In the case of the Hawks, it is again assumed that the government must be pulling the strings to enable it to continue benefiting at our expense. But, again, a pattern seems to be at work that is far more deeply rooted and will not go away the moment the government has new leadership.

Our past was scarred by conflict in which security operatives on both sides played a huge role. While they remained under civilian control, they had plenty of latitude to engage in intrigue, not only against the "enemy" but each other. This, too, lives on, as endless battles between factions in the security establishment show. The fact that Zuma is himself a former security operative means that government leadership may take a direct interest in the turf battles between rival factions. But, again, the problem is a pattern that cannot be boiled down to the actions of a few politicians. Again, it suits people inside and outside the government to continue old patterns rather than to challenge them.

Stereotypes about what is happening in the government prevent us from understanding the role of the security establishment. The Protection of State Information Bill, repeatedly portrayed as an attempt to prevent reporting on corruption, was actually designed to ensure that the public knows as little as possible about what the security operatives do. Because the debate failed to see this, it gave no attention to how to prevent the security establishment undermining democracy.

The common theme in all of this is that ways of doing things that developed over decades are making it difficult to protect citizens from those who misuse money and trust. Some in the government are part of the problem but this does not mean the cure is simply to change the faces in government. We cannot begin fixing the problem if we rely on knee-jerk explanations that prevent us looking at hard realities.

Article by : Steven Friedman.

Article source : Business Day.

Source:Business Day.