by Piet Coetzer

Corruption and its nasty family

Bribery and corruption are as old as sharing bread

Final word - Corruption and its nasty family
Corruptions family.jpg

News reports recently alleged that the hosting of the Fifa World Cup in South Africa in 2010, or at least the preparations for it, led to large private-sector construction companies engaging in corruption up to R30 billion. Reaction to the news prompted a look at the DNA of the phenomenon called 'corruption'. There were some interesting results. 

Above all it strengthened this columnist’s belief that words or names we put to everyday things around us more often than not should tell us a lot more than we usually realise.

The said news reports again tell us, as we too often tend to forget, is that corruption does not only afflict government, its institutions and functionaries by a long shot. It is a rot that permeates throughout society in all its manifestations.

The general reaction to the news about the construction companies caused the NGO Corruption Watch to lament on its website about how quickly the reports on the matter petered out “as allegations of fraud worth R30 billion left South Africa cold.

“With no official response from any state department or, at the very least, condemnation from opposition parties, it raises questions on how acceptable corruption has become in South Africa – within the business sector in particular.

“While government and state officials are roundly condemned for any indication of corruption in their dealings, the same cannot be said for when big business is caught with its hands in the public funds cookie jar.”

Against this background, it is interesting to look at the roots of the word 'corruption'. It derives from the Latin word corrumpere, which means to destroy completely. Even more interestingly the Latin word originally meant to destroy or spoil the flesh, fruit, or organic matter by dissolution or decomposition.

The past participle of Latin’s corrumpere is corruptus (to abuse or destroy or corrupt) which, when used as an adjective, literally means utterly broken.

I think there is a message in that for our society which has allowed corruption to become so acceptable. By the tolerance of corruption we are probably also committing against ourselves.

The word 'fraud', which today mainly means 'deceit', came to English via the Old French word fraude, which in turn derives from the Latin word fraus meaning injury.

In South Africa we have also in recent times heard the word 'bribe' being used quite often, especially in relation to the now infamous mega arms deal.

The word 'bribe', which originally meant a piece or a lump, started off from respectable enough roots. It originated from the old European tradition of sharing food, especially with the less fortunate. To this day the French word bribes means bits and pieces, odds and ends, or little pieces of junk.

From the same root however also comes the verb to beg, developed via Old French as bribeor.

In its original sense the word 'bribe' meant to extort or rob, as in blackmail someone. And, in the modern sense of the word, the one accepting or soliciting a bribe or material consideration in order to influence the outcome of a decision, tender, contract or service is still left wide open to blackmail.

At the heart of this family of ills in society, is very often the phenomenon of nepotism, which is sometimes also described as favouritism or clientelism. It involves the favouring by people in positions of power of people related to them, such as friends, family members or members of a particular group or political party.

A typical example is the hiring of such associates for, or promoting them to, jobs for which they are often not suitably qualified.

The word 'nepotism' also developed in an environment that one would have expected to be respectable in every sense of the word. The term developed from a practice in the church during the Middle Ages. Some popes and bishops who, subject to vows of celibacy, usually had no children of their own, often gave their nephews  and, as gossip would have it, sometimes their illegitimate sons, positions of preference that would normally go from father to son.

A good example of this practice was Pope Callixtus III, head of the Borgia family who appointed two of his nephews as cardinals. One of them, Rodrigo, later became Pope Alexander VI. He in turn appointed his mistress’s brother,  Alessandro Farnese, as a cardinal, who also later became pope.

And to this day those who indulge in these practices regard themselves as being above the law and in the name of some cause or goal as close to holy as you can get!


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Issue 413


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