Why a corruption amnesty should not be contemplated

If people think they can loot and steal and not get caught, many of them will. There have to be harsh consequences, or everything falls apart.

In a proposal published on Daily Maverick on 8 March, a group of Johannesburg-based lawyers argued for a corruption amnesty. Their argument is long and detailed but is essentially wrong and requires a response.

One of the reasons that people battle to imagine real justice is because it has become very difficult to picture life beyond the worldview of the ANC. The vast majority of our journalism and commentariat operate from the base that the ANC is – and will always be – all-powerful. For many, it is the only real paradigm that exists.

The authors of the article in question correctly identify that one of the key barriers to progress in corruption-related matters is the politics of the ANC. President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke a tough game on corruption but has proven himself to be anything but. The reasons for that are simple – the politics of the ANC are so corrupt that you cannot get ahead without making deals with the corrupt devils of their world. Everyone is beholden to each other and no one is free from dirty politics.

That – not a system that requires structural change – is the core of the problem.

My points are best illustrated on my home turf – in the embattled eThekwini Council, where I have served since 2011.

The harsh reality is that corruption at a local level results in a real breakdown of basic services, which almost always impacts on people’s dignity. You cannot live a dignified life if there is no water to wash, flush and cook, if there is rubbish piled outside your home, or if you cannot get to work because there are no bus services.

In days gone by, eThekwini (and the local councils that preceded the metro) was one of the best local government administrations in the country. Officials and politicians from across party lines speak fondly about how they worked together to get things done. The politics may have differed, but basic services were never in question.

We are now in a total race to the bottom, with basic line departments and municipal functions often completely dysfunctional.

An ANC councillor recently pulled me aside at City Hall and asked me if he was on the “Hawks hit list”. I asked him if he had done anything illegal, and he didn’t seem to understand what I meant. I mentioned this conversation later to a colleague in the ANC whom I consider a good person – one of the very few left in eThekwini. I said it seemed like the councillor who approached me didn’t understand what was legal and what wasn’t. The colleague laughed and said, “Don’t let these thieves fool you – they all knew, they just didn’t think they would get caught.”

The other argument made in the amnesty proposal is that corruption becomes so pervasive that it becomes very difficult not to be involved, and very difficult to pull the trigger. This is both true, and it isn’t.

As mentioned above, people know what is right and what is wrong. Where it becomes murky is that people think they can get away with proverbial murder, and for the most part, many have.

If people think they can loot and steal and not get caught, many of them will. There are people who won’t, but we can’t build public systems on the hope of good values and morals. There have to be harsh consequences, or everything falls apart.

Amnesty will only embolden the small players and cushion the big ones.

In some of the online comments around amnesty, someone suggested that it should only be granted to people who bring forward new information. The problem in this country is not a lack of information or knowledge. There are, of course, always more bodies to uncover, but we know enough to put thousands of people in jail if we tried. We know enough to recover billions in public funding and we know enough to get the accountability show on the road.

The primary proposition of the amnesty proposal seems to be that the existing systems haven’t worked and something else needs to happen. It is very difficult to accept that our systems haven’t worked when they haven’t been properly implemented, properly enforced and completely lack political will.

This argument is akin to advocating for the death penalty because the justice system is poor – it circumvents the actual nature of the problem and creates a false solution.

At the recent Daily Maverick Gathering, former Trillians Financial Advisory CEO and whistleblower Mosilo Mothepu was asked about the proposed amnesty. This is a woman who has put her life on the line to see justice, and her answer was simple. She doesn’t want to see amnesty; she wants to see blood.

South Africans need to see heads on stakes to believe that there is a system in place that will actually work. They stopped believing that a while ago, and when people have lost hope in the fairness of society, it is very difficult to win it back.

Amnesty is only going to further erode the faith and trust that people have in the fairness of society and in the functionality of our systems. From the bottom to the top, there needs to be justice and people need to see it for our country to start working again.

South Africans – and Durbanites in particular – don’t want amnesty. South Africans want blood.

This is not time to hold hands and forget; it’s time for the corrupt to pay. DM