Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
Lord Acton's famous dictum on power is often misquoted. In his letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, Lord Acton wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." He was speaking against the doctrine of papal infallibility.
When his words are reduced to the popular, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely", we end with the idea that all leaders are corrupt or will become corrupt given enough time. This drives a wedge between the people and their elected leadership.
Perceptions of corruption are high in South Africa, for good reason. Several leaders in high office have been publically shamed for corrupt practices, from leasing buildings at three times their market value, to visiting a jailed girlfriend in Switzerland at taxpayers' expense, to hiring drug mules, mismanaging millions of Rands and manipulating BEE deals for personal enrichment.
Our newspapers are full of reports of corruption. But it is not just these high profile cases that convince our people that corruption is endemic. It is the small scale, daily abuses of power that our citizens contend with that create the perception that power inevitably corrupts.
Corruption has the potential to destroy democracy. When a people believes that no matter who they vote for, their leaders will inevitably prove to be corrupt, the social compact is broken. Why vote, if your vote will simply empower a corrupt leader? It is easy to see how citizens can become disenchanted with the democratic process when they feel they are simply choosing between evils.
For this reason, I have waged a war against corruption. I have not only deliberately placed myself in a position of accountability, but have demanded absolute integrity from those around me. For, if I turn a blind eye to corruption, I am complicit in condoning it.
Whether as Chief Minister of the erstwhile KwaZulu Government or President of the IFP or Inkosi of my Clan, I have never made decisions, either financial or political, unilaterally. I believe in collegial wisdom. As a traditional leader, I have learned to be a catalyst of consensus, guiding discussions to enable the people to decide unanimously, by reaching a position that satisfies dissenting opinions.
Throughout my eighteen years leading the KwaZulu Government, it was well-known that I would not tolerate corruption among officials or staff.
Anyone working for me knew better than to abuse their power, take a bribe or siphon funds. Because of this, never once was a single allegation of corruption ever levelled at my administration.
I therefore know that, while power tends to corrupt, corruption is not inevitable wherever power is wielded. There are firewalls one can install. Transparency and accountability are a good start. But more must be done.
I was fascinated by a presentation on the causes of corruption delivered yesterday during a symposium of the Parliamentary Institute of South Africa. The Institute operates on the Chatham House rules, allowing Members of Parliament to engage in debate with the great intellectuals and decision-makers of civil society without having to express their party line.
It is a space for truly free debate.
One of the speakers quite candidly told us that wherever we create a rubberstamp, we create an opportunity for corruption. The more hurdles we place in front of our citizens to doing business and achieving their personal goals, the greater their incentive to devise ways to circumvent those obstacles. Paying a bribe becomes the quickest route.
Having many years of experience in governance, I knew this to be true when I took up my position as Minister of Home Affairs in South Africa's first democratic Government. Thus, when I was charged with leading the entire legislative reform of migration management to reflect a democratic system, I applied the fundamental principle of removing administrative discretion.
Under my leadership, migration laws were rewritten to ensure that if anyone met the set of requirements prescribed by legislation, they would qualify to enter South Africa and be able to work, study, invest, tour or do whatever legitimate business they came here to do. The success of their visa application would not depend on the arbitrary discretion of a junior official.
Unfortunately, much of the good work we did in transforming Home Affairs away from obscure bureaucracy towards administrative efficiency was disrupted by subsequent changes to legislation. The history of my own legislation's passage through Parliament remains one of the longest and most complex in South Africa's history, largely because the ruling Party was loath to accept anything Buthelezi proposed.
When I inherited the Department of Home Affairs, I was amazed to find that the handbook guiding decisions of officials and detailing the full set of requirements for applications was not available for public consumption. Just what hoops one would be required to jump through was a closely guarded secret. Administratively, this makes no sense, and it leaves a door wide open for corruption.
I still believe in removing administrative discretion as far as possible.
When Government gives an official the unfettered power to grant or refuse a citizen's request based on obscure or unexpressed reasons, corruption breeds. This is counter-intuitive to good governance. Good governance is governance that assists citizens to achieve their goals through providing efficient, predictable, reliable services.
This is one of the reasons I am against the ANC's policy of cadre deployment. Cadre deployment gives discretionary power to officials to benefit or reward whomever they choose. After all, they themselves have been rewarded with an income and status for their political loyalty. The system is known, accepted and entrenched.
I was deeply concerned by statements I heard following a service delivery protest in KwaZulu Natal. Community members were complaining that their councillor only provides jobs to ANC cadres. The abuse of power here is clear, although the people don't seem to recognise it. How is a councillor empowered to provide jobs in the first place?
A councillor is mandated to serve their community and represent the voice of their constituents in local government structures. It is not a councillor's job to influence who gets a tender or a job in the municipality. It seems some councillors have misunderstood the extent of the power their position confers. So too have the people who elected them.
It worries me that South Africans do not always recognise the line that should not be crossed. They feel a Minister should not take a bribe, but bribing a traffic officer is acceptable. Unfair competition that drives up prices is not okay, but cheating on your income tax is acceptable.
Perhaps this tainted perception has indeed been created by the many obstacles Government places in front of its citizens, so that bucking the system becomes a game. A different set of rules begins to apply for those wielding power, and those trying to manipulate it. Invariably, this drives the wedge between the people and their elected leadership much deeper.
Lord Acton, in his 1887 letter, wrote, "I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases."
We should indeed hold leaders to the same standard of morality and legality as ordinary men. They should never be above the rule of law. And I agree that they should be held to a higher standard because of their position of authority. But that does not mean dropping the standard for everyone else.
Corruption is a cancer that takes root at any level of society.
Wherever power is wielded, there is scope for abuse of power. Thus, whether we are political leaders, or teachers, parents, bosses or spouses, every one of us should introspectively ask, "Have I abused my power today?"
Yours in the service of our nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP