As VIPs go, you can’t get much higher than a Saudi prince, specifically billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud. With a Forbes net worth rating of $16.5 billion, he is one of the richest men in the world and has large holdings in some of the biggest global companies. I wrote about him some years back (see When Billionaires pout) when the prince threw some of his golden toys out of the cot at not being ranked higher in the Forbes listing of richest people in the world.
Now he has been arrested among dozens of princes and former government ministers as part of a sweeping anti-corruption probe in the country; a difficult thing to fathom in a state that has been rife with endemic corruption and is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. In addition, the purge is clearly part of a very tangled web being weaved around power in the royal family and in the broader context of Middle East geopolitics. But it is the kind of action that might just lift the Kingdom from its 62nd ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which, surprisingly perhaps, is two ranks better than South Africa. Top spot as the world’s “cleanest” nations is shared by Denmark and New Zealand.
The global rebellion against corruption has become intense.
“In too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity,” says José Ugaz, chair of Transparency International.
Unemployment, poverty, and especially inequality, create a passionate intolerance of brazen corrupt behaviour and of political largesse and nepotism. It has been a key factor in the global assault on the establishment and the rise of populism. One may be tempted to use events in Zimbabwe as an example, but that has been more about political power mongering than a popular uprising against corruption. This in itself shows how corruption fuels political instability and factional conflict.
We are seeing much of that in South Africa too, but South Africans themselves cannot be accused of indifference towards corruption. These past few months in particular have seen an unprecedented public outcry against the behaviour of some of the political and business elite, including household names in institutional finance. Opposition parties have been active in parliament, the streets and courts; parliamentary committee meetings have become courtrooms with members of all parties practising their prosecuting skills; investigative journalists are writing best sellers with new revelations each day, and civic organisations have adopted law enforcement roles in various ways. We salute them all. We should support them all. These are the good men and women who do not allow evil to flourish by standing by and doing nothing.
But what is needed now is for one or a few of our own untouchable princes, including some of those in private sector institutions, to be handcuffed in his or her office, marched to jail and subjected to robust prosecution. We have named them. We have shamed them. They should now go to prison.
One can name, but one cannot shame the shameless
There is enough evidence to institute a high level prosecution. Perversely, the public parading of all of this evidence is aggravating perceptions both here and abroad, of the depth of corruption. We have shown the world our dirty linen. We have not shown that we are prepared to wash it. It’s a moot point whether there aren’t countries that are more corrupt than South Africa, but rank better simply because of media and public repression.
Perceptions drive trust and the biggest price we are paying for both the levels of corruption and the uproar around it, is a widening of the trust deficit. That has become an important factor in holding back economic growth. Imprison one or a few high profile miscreants and trust will gain a substantial boost. Legal retribution is now no longer only about fair play and justice; but also about economic growth, credit ratings, jobs and prosperity.
Judicial commissions, parliamentary committees and enquiries, may add to the heat, but will do little to burn the criminals. Like the enquiry into tax morality, which is a ludicrous oxymoron. How can you expect tax morality when you have immoral tax spending?
There are many who are hoping that the much-talked-about ANC elective conference next month will be some kind of watershed in the fight against corruption. At least all candidates have included it in their personal manifestos. It’s little more than typical political incoherence and hypocrisy. It is doubtful whether this fish has rotted only from the head, and that a different head will stop the rot.
What was once viewed as the ruling party’s greatest strength, has become its greatest weakness – its strong decentralised power structure and the power vested in its branches. From the early 90s, elections in these branches had become little more than job-hunting by unemployed cadres. Political position was made convertible into employment in all forms of government, SOEs and supply chain patronage. It was even a good credential to have in seeking employment in the private sector. The extent to which this qualification influenced appointments in executive and administrative positions has undoubtedly aggravated poor service delivery, but its effects on the branches themselves are now obvious in sometimes violent contestation for branch posts and the degree to which branches, regions and even provinces are often in disarray.
Corruption has become systemic, not only in party structures, but in the broad government and related bureaucracies. That is not counterintuitive to the need for prosecution at the top. It may not make a clean sweep throughout political, government and private sector institutions, but will certainly dramatically change foreign and domestic perceptions about corruption in South Africa.
Wouldn’t that be a nice Christmas gift for the nation?