crass materialism THREATENING SA

SPEAKING at the Business South Africa anti-corruption forum last week, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi spoke about the cancer of corruption ravaging South Africa and how a culture of crass materialism in our society is threatening the foundations of this country's democracy.

SPEAKING at the Business South Africa anti-corruption forum last week, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi spoke about the cancer of corruption ravaging South Africa and how a culture of crass materialism in our society is threatening the foundations of this country's democracy.

Vavi went further and articulated how the country's attainment of a democratic order has actually become a blight on our hopes of becoming a more equal society.

"The 1994 historic breakthrough has opened a completely new chapter for everyone. But as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said: 'A country is just like a house, it has windows and gates. If you close the window you get no fresh air, and also no flies. But if you open the window fresh air comes in and also some flies.'

"This is exactly what is happening in our country.

"A disturbing culture has blown in through the window and taken root in our society and our movement, which threatens to erode the moral and ethics of our revolution and is silently threatening our national democratic movement," Vavi said.

He blames this phenomenon largely on the private sector.

"While of course the majority of businessmen and women - and we can say the same about our political leadership - obey the law and do not get involved in corruption there is a capitalist culture that praises and rewards those who accumulate the most wealth and despises those who 'fail'," Vavi went on to say.

His argument is that business people bribed public officials to get business from government.

"For every person who receives a bribe there is another who gives the bribe. For every corrupt councillor or public official there is a corrupt businessman or woman," Vavi said.

His argument cannot be faulted when it comes to how businesspeople wave their cheque books at public officials who then bend the rules to grant contracts to their benefactors - usually at huge costs to the taxpayer.

But, also, many stories are told about public officials bending the rules and granting contracts to themselves, relatives and friends - also at huge cost to the taxpayer.

Vavi is also right in saying there is a culture of crass materialism that has pervaded the private and public sectors.

This is a society where there are massive inequalities.

What this scenario tells us is that the attainment of a democratic order in this country has created a situation in which there is class of people who are not necessarily entrepreneurs in the classical sense - but see public office as an opportunity to feed their materialistic hunger.

In his book Architects of Poverty Moeletsi Mbeki argues that the South African productive economy remains in the hands of an economic oligarchy that owns what he calls the Mineral-Energy Complex (MEC) - which includes the country's financial and mining sectors.

Mbeki argues that it is this class who has set the living standard in the country. There is then the black elite, on the other hand, which is striving to live up to that standard.

The strategy that the black elite has embraced to achieve this has been black economic empowerment.

Some have achieved this by using political connections to acquire a stake in companies within the MEC.

Others have used their positions within the public sector to accumulate wealth by earning inflated salaries and being involved in corrupt business deals.

As Mbeki points out their approach is, therefore, not that of using the state to serve the needs of the people but rather of using it to advance their material interests.

What this tells us is that any solution to the problem of corruption and crass materialism must look at South Africa's current developmental model and how it has perpetuated the scourge.

Failure to do so will reduce putting legislation and anti-corruption mechanism in place to mere band aid solutions.

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