This kind of theft, whether public money or the deposits of the most desperate or the SOE and municipality funds that could have been deposited in the bank to cover the original theft, matters to all of us – because it normalises an attitude that this kind of theft isn’t a real crime like sexual violence against women or murder.
Outrage is easy. We are good at being outraged. Let’s be honest in South Africa there’s quite a lot to be outraged about. The great bank heist as Advocate Terry Motau SC termed it, is as good a place as any – R2-billion looted from a bank at the expense of those who can least afford it by those who ostensibly devote their lives to fighting for their rights.
But what we do when the outrage subsides?
It’s an important question because we are living in an era where there is a lot going on that is wrong – State Capture, corporate collusion – but we stand the very real risk of becoming inured to it all, normalising it, just as we have done for violent crime as an example or the lack of service delivery.
But this isn’t normal. None of it is and none of it ever should be. The truth of the matter is that when the pundits speak of Africa rising, we should be asking whether Africa is rising in education or if Africa is rising in revolution
That’s what will happen if we don’t break this cycle – a cycle that is being enabled yet again by the professional guilds set up to prevent this kind of thing, KPMG yet again, aided and abetted by chancers and rogues exploiting the very real fissures in our still fractured society.
Every day we see living proof of Hermann Goering’s brutal, though incredibly apt, observation:
“Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Sadly, the best lies are always steeped in truth. We have a horrid legacy of injustice and inequality all too visible in our ownership of the world’s highest Gini co-efficient, all because of apartheid and before it colonialism. But what happened at VBS was because of neither of these.
People’s sense of who’s doing what is being distorted by people with the capacity to use dishonest, deceptive rhetoric, much like US President Donald Trump is doing all the time, it’s the classic dog whistle tactic.
That’s one danger – diverting culpability. The other of course is that this fierce outrage which burns so brightly right now will in time fade, probably subsumed by another scandal, another national disgrace. And the heat of outrage gives us a false sense of engagement on issues . Transformation, like revenge is a dish best eaten cold.
The answer is to understand that we are in crisis as a society – not just in South Africa – and that the deepest enabler is everyone’s inability to see the causality and the consequences of what is happening.
We thought State Capture was big – and that it was our only problem. In truth it’s all part of the bigger cancer that is metastasising before our eyes.
There are some people who couldn’t see what the big fuss was about Nkandla. There’ll be those who can’t see what the big fuss is about VBS. There will be some who will point to other South African banks and point to other unproven and unnamed misconduct in a bid to distract and divert, however wrongly or falsely.
Every challenged establishment of power in history has found a common external enemy to pass the pain and blame onto, to externalise capability onto a dehumanised outgroup.
The average couple, let’s call them Thabo and Lindiwe, might say “but we haven’t been affected. Our TV hasn’t been stolen, our house hasn’t been broken into, our money is still in the bank”. Or, “this is KPMG, this doesn’t affect us, it’s corporates”.
The fact is we have all been affected. This kind of theft, whether public money or the deposits of the most desperate or the SOE and municipality funds that could have been deposited in the bank to cover the original theft, matters to all of us – because it normalises an attitude that this kind of theft isn’t a real crime like sexual violence against women or murder.
Sadly, it’s a terrible crime, with far-reaching damage and victims in the millions. But how did we get here? Let’s start off with money. What is money? It’s what we get in exchange for our lives’ efforts, its our sweat, our tears, our hopes. That’s what money is especially to those who don’t have much of it. But when you translate it from a tangible thing to an abstract concept, it becomes easy to steal without consequences.
But there are consequences; it means robbing children of an education because there’s no money to build schools, or adequate health care, or housing for the poor – or simply the opportunity for anyone else wanting to chase and achieve that goal of a better life.
The people who have stolen from VBS have shown the greatest possible contempt for the people who invested in the bank – and they have been allowed to do this because, in truth, our institutions have been captured, the rhetoric has been captured, reality has been captured. The investors aren’t corporates, they are municipal tax payers. Rands hard-earned by sweat and service.
But one thing hasn’t been captured. We haven’t been, our individual integrity hasn’t been and most of all, just because other people are corrupt and collude it doesn’t mean that we have to or are.
So, we get angry and we get outraged. It’s totally counter-productive because nothing ever happens. We call for the arrest of those guilty, their prosecution and their jailing but we are only treating the symptoms of the bigger malaise – the cancerous tumour itself. We are taking a painkiller for the headache, not excising the root cause.
Just as we don’t expect our surgeon to cut out the tumour in the heat of anger and outrage, nor should we. Instead we should be brutally cold and calculating. As Norman Adami famously said, we should make reality our friend.
Our reality is that we deceive ourselves all the time, we fail to look at the consequences of actions, we fail to hold people and institutions to account, we allow everything to become abstract – and relativised.
There is nothing abstract nor relative about corruption or collusion. VBS is not isolated, but rather a symptom of our current reality, which includes the Guptas, Nkandla, the Estina Dairy Farm – even though the actors might all be very different.
Our concomitant reality is massive unemployment and spiralling hopelessness. The only way to prevent the one feeding the other is for us all to see the causality and understand that corruption and collusion have only one consequence – the theft of all of our futures.
It’s not the violent crime we have to worry about, it’s this form of crime which creates the context where violent crime is inevitable. We need to stay cool, channel the outrage into structured, thoughtful, implacable solutions.
It’s time to cut out the cancer, it’s time for a lifestyle change. If we can use the VBS scandal as a case study to finally make everyone understand the truth, then we will have achieved something very special – and saved South Africa in the process.
Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa