Lessons we can learn from the Greek tragedy

There are lessons to be learned for South Africa as post-referendum Greece limps towards ….well, we don’t really know …. Armageddon? (This is, after all, a word that comes from the Ancient Greek Ἁρμαγεδών Harmagedō).

South Africa must take note of this sorry tale – especially the issue of corruption that destroys nations and almost always ends in tears.

Last weekend, I spent some time with Greek friends. They related how one of their relatives living in South Africa had – after many years – travelled to his home town in Greece for business purposes. The man was perplexed when he seemed to be going nowhere with his business proposals. Then it dawned on him – he’d completely forgotten to put the Fakelaki (or envelopes stuffed with cash) on the table.

Bribes and Rousfeti (or patronage) have been present in Greece for years now, my Greek friends explained.

In fact, the origins of Rousfeti can be traced back to the Ottoman occupation in 1453 when Greece’s ruling oligarchy was destroyed. (The Ottomans wanted Greece’s rulers eradicated so the populace would be without leadership and less likely to stage an insurrection.)

A system then fell into place where some locals became the guardians of the Greek people, not only protecting them against the Ottoman rulers and thereby gaining prestige, but also lending out money. This became the patron-client or muhtar system which evolved into the patronage system.

Back to modern times now. Through a stroke of luck or perfect juggling, Greece’s economy managed to stay on course until – my Greek friends noted – the then Prime Minister of Greece Konstantinos Karamanlis, in 1975, focused on integrating the nation into the European Union as a full member.

Greece joined the Euro currency in 2001 and took advantage of the cheap loans flowing from its European partners. (Later in 2004, the government in Athens admitted to cooking the books by supplying dodgy entry figures to Brussels.)

The first cracks appeared during the 2008 global financial crisis. Many countries using the Euro were affected, but Greece fared particularly badly. It could now no longer print money to boost the economy as it had done in the past. Its currency, the Euro, was now controlled by the European Central Bank.

Two bailouts followed in 2010 and 2012. And here we are today.

For Greece to climb out of the awful hole it dug for itself, it’s clear that the Rousfeti sytem has to disappear. All – yes, all – the country’s political parties have to pledge to halt the plundering of the country. The national sport of evading tax must go, as well as the attitude of breaking laws that don’t fit into one’s personal business plans.

My Greek friends tell me that almost everyone in Greece has been involved in some sort of corruption – from lawyers to doctors to engineers to tax officials to politicians – basically everyone who can profit by making others pay. And if the majority of the nation is corrupt, who’s going to do anything about corruption? Sound familiar, fellow South Africans?

How about the ‘tenderpreneurism’ that is currently present in our country? Didn’t the Greeks also use the system? After all, the definition of tenderpreneur is ”a term that describes individuals who enrich themselves through corrupting the awarding of government tender contracts, mostly based on personal connections and corrupt relationships – although outright bribery might also take place – and sometimes involving an elected or politically appointed official (or his or her family members) holding simultaneous business interests. This is often accompanied by overcharging and shoddy workmanship.”

In Greece we’ve had the case of Antonis Kantas, a former deputy minister of defence, who told a court that he’d lost count of the bribes he’d taken. Then there was the German company Siemens that bribed Greek officials with payments from a slush fund it had set aside. In addition, what about the extremely wealthy Greeks having billions of Euros in secret offshore accounts? This led to the former French finance minister, now IMF boss, Christine Lagarde compiling a list of potential tax evaders that she handed to the Greek government. The story goes that the former Greek finance minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou was able to obtain the list to delete the names of family members that appeared on it.

Take a look at the South African corruption landscape and you’ll find little difference. Think of the arms deal, the Jackie Selebi trial as well as the Schabir Shaik trial. What about the country’s favourite – the Nkandla homestead? I could go on and on, but it seems fair to say that a large number of South Africans have had had their palms greeced – oooops, I meant greased. Where will we eventually land up? Not in a state of Armageddon, I hope…



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