Sometimes I have vivid flashbacks to a conversation I had with the late Kimi Makwetu, the previous Auditor-General of South Africa. May his soul rest in peace, while his words haunt me. We were talking about the state of my country at the time, a topic foremost in mind for most South Africans. We were both expressing concern about the red flags we were seeing. This conversation took place amidst increasing reports of corruption in the country. At some point, Kimi looked at me with eyes filled with a heaviness that I don’t see often. His eyes told me that his words were only touching the tip of an iceberg. His words to me (paraphrased) were: “Claudelle, South Africans are so focused on one man (the president at the time), but he is but a small part of a systemic problem. What we as auditors see on the ground will give South Africans nightmares”. Those words sent a chill down my back. Mostly, because I did not want to believe that we are a lost cause. What happens when society steps over a line that could be a final point of no return?
I had heard so many stories from professionals like internal auditors that confirmed his concerns. In some institutions, the decay is at all levels, to the degree that even cleaners are involved in webs of corruption. One of the stories that hit me hardest is about intern medical doctors having to pay bribes to be placed in training hospitals. If they don’t pay, they end up sitting at home for months on end with no income and no training. Blew my mind away. We can’t have a society without doctors. Yet, there are people who force young people to, already at that stage of their careers, become complicit in corruption. This of course means that those who have the means travel faster through the system. Double whammy to a developing country. It also means that in preying on their vulnerability and making young people complicit in corruption, we are negatively contributing to the mindset of future professionals. Then there are stories of data capturers ensuring that newcomers do not work at a normal pace, by threatening them if they work faster than others. Why? Because the work must be stretched out for as long as possible so that everyone can remain employed for as long as possible.
Before we start to think that this a primarily a public sector problem let me hasten to say that I have heard equally gruesome stories in the private sector, where corruption is often just better cloaked. Or worse, dressed up in a manner that makes it seem “respectable”, or perpetrated by those glorified through a halo effect and therefore not questioned. One conversation that immediately comes to mind was with a very senior internal auditor in one of our biggest mining companies. The stories relayed had me beyond puzzled. Why did those who could do something about it feel muzzled?
To add insult to injury, the phrase that often seems to be at the centre of it all: If you can’t beat them, join them. Like those trainee doctors who just pay the bribe, because it is the easiest route to their goal. Are more and more people succumbing to the insidious web and justifying their actions with: “Everyone is doing it, why should I lose out”? The problem with “everyone is doing it” is that we can start to feel comfortable with our actions and that we don’t really have to think deeply about the immediate consequences and long-term effects on others. When we start to shake off feelings of guilt because “this is what everyone else is doing anyway”, we are in actual fact outsourcing our morality to others.
It is therefore incumbent on each of us to constantly evaluate whether our moral compass is still pointing to our true north. We need to continually ask ourselves whether our actions are informed by our own beliefs that we carefully considered, before we concluded that they are fit to be used in our moral compass. How certain are we that we are not just believing what we are because those around us believe it? Or, that we are believing what we are because those who we have crowned with a halo believe it? Applying one’s own mind is paramount if we were to avoid the temptation of outsourcing our morality to others.