Look beyond corruption. What do you see? Why does corruption exist? Are all people who partake in corruption really evil?
Let’s take a look at the stereotypical small-scale corruption scenario. Say I am a policeman and I take a bribe – why? I am not paid enough, and, well, everyone does it. Say I am a driver and I pay a bribe – why? Going to court would be such a hassle, and, well, everyone does it.
Are the policeman and the driver bad people? No – they are just following a societal norm.
Let’s take a look at the stereotypical large-scale corruption scenario. A politician is privy to a scandal that steals money from the country’s education fund and funnels it into the pockets of “foreign investors” and political “partners.” Why? He/she will gain more money that he/she has ever dreamed of and can live a luxurious life, and, well, everyone does it.
Is this politician a bad person? Societal norm or not, stealing money from those who really need it cannot be excused – so in my opinion, yes.
I am not excusing the everyday minor corrupt act. Every little act of corruption, every little drop of poison into the sea, contributes to the pollution of society.
Look beyond corruption. What do you see? A system that makes it too easy to be corrupt. A culture that expects, even encourages corruption. Our polluted society is caused by more than just the corruption that is a thin film stretching across the surface of the heaving ocean of a culture and a system that are behind that corruption.
Corruption is a symptom of a system – a complex system of capitalist greed, political nepotism, exploitative motivation, and historical precedents that have not yet been overturned. In Africa, corruption as we see it today was unknown until the colonialists arrived on the continent. With their taking over, favouritism of a few, creation of an elite, installment of capitalism, and exploitation of Africa’s precious natural resources – which continues today through economic imperialism – the continent has been transformed into a den of corruption.
Corruption has become a culture that has spread to almost every corner of the globe and become so engrained in our daily lives, to the point where it is perfectly normal. An average person today will partake in corruption without feeling an ounce of guilt. Getting a little personal to my life as a Nairobian, yes, I have given the police “kitu kidogo” (“small thing” in Kiswahili, code for “bribe”). Recently though, I decided to walk the talk. In my first driving lesson, my instructor said she would only give me the full hour if I “talked to her nicely” (code for “bribe”). I refused and suffered the consequences – hope I pass my driving test now! When applying for my ID, I was asked for “soda” (code for “bribe”) to speed up the process. I refused and almost didn’t get my ID after losing my temper at the chain of corrupt officials in that office. These are minor actions, but significant in starting to address a psychological addiction to bribery, a little needle-poke fighting the dragon.
Nowadays, even being nice on a human level requires a bribe. In Kenya, when one’s car breaks down and passers-by give a hand in pushing, the driver is expected to give some “chai” (Kiswahili for “tea,” code for “bribe”). The saying goes “nothing is free.” Have people forgotten how to do something just to help out another, without always asking “what’s in it for me?”
The above examples are the small things. Then there are the infamous scandals. We have so many in Kenya (Chickengate, Goldenburg, Anglo Leasing, . . the list goes on) and I’m sure most African countries have their own shame list. Then the less famous ones like covert forced bribery on Somalis, a group much discriminated against in Kenya. Such scandals and operations take inhumanity to another level. Not only has corruption become normal and expected – so have inhumanity, selfishness, exploitation, cheating and stealing by corporations and politicians.
The South African musician Fiesta Black puts it very well in her song “Hayi Basile” (“They are Wicked”):
We work hard every day
Yours is just to eat for free
You’re known for empty promises
Don’t give a shit about nobody else, but yourself.
I differentiate between large-scale and everyday corruption. Large-scale corruption is absolutely unacceptable and should be severely punished. Small-scale corruption is also unacceptable, but good people often end up giving in to this symptom of the system that we are slaves to. In order to survive in the capitalist society, one must adopt the capitalist mindset of “me first, even if I have to push others aside.” This selfish mindset infiltrates into many of our actions. Further, it encourages thoughtless corruption that is an act in a present moment that benefits the involved parties, with no thought or care to the consequences beyond. However, any corrupt act adds to the sea of wrongdoing.
Slavery was widely accepted. It was wrong. Apartheid was widely accepted. It was wrong. Colonialism was widely accepted. It was wrong. Corruption is widely accepted. It is wrong.
What can be done to tackle corruption?
- Change our attitudes, starting with ourselves. Make that conscious decision today.
- Increase accountability of those in positions of authority. This requires stringent measures and strict punishments that are enforced.
- Create peer pressure against corruption. Disrupt the cultural acceptance of corruption. With societal disapproval and shaming of any act of corruption, people will start to change.
- Revisit the past. Look back at our diverse and rich histories, societies, cultures and traditions. What systems worked better that we have eliminated through colonialism, imperialism, and blind imitation of the “west”?
- Change the bigger system of capitalism that encourages selfish actions. Create a society of “Ubuntu,” such that we are not fighting each other but working together.
Look beyond corruption. What do you see? Human beings who are slaves to a system but have the potential to be just – human.