You may remember an old advertising campaign for SAA that featured the somewhat benign strapline: “We didn’t invent flying, we just perfected it.”

This line sprang to mind recently whilst talking with a group of people at a work function. One of our group was talking quite openly – if a tad sheepishly – about how he had bribed a municipal official to help make something or other go smoothly in some or other area of the country where he is involved in some kind of business. I am of course protecting him and his company’s identity because – other than this little indiscretion – he is quite a nice fellow and I also happen to do some work for him that I would prefer not to lose.

The conversation caused the above-mentioned advertising strap-line to resurrect itself from the deep recesses of my memory and I began to chuckle quietly to myself as I replayed it over-and-over in my mind replacing the word “we” with specific people’s names: “Shabir Shaik didn’t invent corruption, he just perfected it.”; “Jacob Zuma didn’t invent corruption, he just perfected it.” On-and-on I went, working my way through our cabinet, their friends, our state-owned enterprises and our sports teams. It was fabulously amusing in a sick kind of way.   

Then the crash-boom-bang moment. I suddenly felt a little uneasy as my attention swung back to the conversation at hand and away from the ones who have become celebrities on little more than the grounds of their own corruption. There we sat, a group of hard-working, “upstanding” citizens – all of us relative unknowns, just getting about life in South Africa, contributing to the perfection of corruption; we nodded at the news of the infraction, smiled, drank our wine and ate our food and remained quite quiet.

Now, even as I write this it sounds like I am being rather critical – perhaps over critical – of our reaction. In the context of a civil and polite gathering, what is one meant to do? It would be rude to tackle the person and make an issue of the thing. In addition to this it might also have been hypocritical: “Let he/she who is without sin cast the first stone” and all that. And apart from all that, the bribe itself was not millions (“shouldn’t we be focusing on catching those who are corrupt on a grander scale?”), it was a few thousand. Well actually a few tens of thousands. But it wasn’t chicken coop large or even fire pool large, it was just a decent amount to smooth a path; get things done nicely if you like. Also, it would have paved the way for jobs to be created and communities to be sustained.

But this line of internal argument proved insufficient to assuage my guilt. So, I chose to get personal. I reminded myself that I might not be brave enough to speak out in person, but I do my bit; I write about citizen participation; about each of us being co-architects of a better future for all and playing our part in creating peace and stamping out corruption and other crime; I tell people to blow the whistle on corruption all the time. Is this not enough to be allowed to claim that I am doing all I can to prevent corruption being perfected in our country?

Let’s forget about the above-mentioned bride for a moment because to be honest, in itself that bribe will have done little to perfect corruption. What perfects corruption is when people hear of corruption and do nothing.

My mind wandered off again to an altogether less chuckle-inducing place: “Justin Foxton did not invent corruption, he just perfected it.” My self-justifying self now took over the argument: “That is not fair!” I simply cannot be accused of corruption let alone perfecting the jolly thing!”

But now came the most piercing personal revelation of all: The thought process behind ignoring corruption is as devious – perhaps even more so – than the thought process that drives the corrupt act itself: I will pay this person with my silence to secure his business. He will give me money and I will give him protection. She will give me friendship and I will give her my faithful silence; he will be a brother to me and I will protect him come what may. It becomes so easy for me to point the finger at others when I am involved in the perfection of corruption all the time.

We will overcome the nation-slayer called corruption as we acknowledge that we are all in some way complicit in its perfection. This is not about flogging ourselves. It’s about getting quite honest with ourselves and asking what we can personally do to turn the tide on corruption.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole.