There is a Hindu poem that the self-restrained man moves through the world with felicity, but in South Africa restraint is a value that is seldom practiced and experts on the issue are at their wits end about what to do.
Whether its crime on the streets, fraud at companies or people simply spending money they do not have, South Africans generally seem to lack self control.
Johan Burger a crime researcher at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) says the lack of self control is because there is something wrong with the basic moral fiber of South African society.
“My own feeling from the research I have done and been involved with its that there is something wrong with the basic moral fiber of South Africans in general,” he says.
“This problem is so widespread. We find it in all forms. Most people gratify by calling it white collar crime and so on.”
Burger says even crime surveys fail to give a clear picture of how widespread the problem is.
“The problem of the lack self-control is so widespread that it is difficult for a figures to give an accurate picture of what is happening. Generally you almost distrust any person you go to nowadays.”
There are only two ways of ending the problem, Burger says. Create a culture of ethics using churches and schools to re-educate people and have oversight and watchdog institutions in place.
“How achievable that is, is highly debatable but it will be a start.”
One indication of the lack of self-control is evident in a fraud survey completed recently by auditing firm Ernst & Young. The survey found that 24 percent of the respondents had experienced fraud in their organisation in the past year.
Stuart Waymark, the fraud, investigations and dispute services partner at Ernst & Young says there is little will among companies to do anything about the problem.
“Despite the high level of anxiety – and 24 percent of South African respondents indicating that their organisation has experienced fraud in the last year – corporate will and actions to address the problem appear to be lacking.”
Waymark says just 32 percent of South African organisations have formal or documented fraud procedures. Only 21 percent of employees are provided with formal training to help them understand and implement anti-fraud policies.
“This finding demonstrates the shortfall of corporate South Africa in combating the problem of loss through fraud and corruption,” he says.
The survey found that one in five organisations has made a decision not to invest in an emerging market as a result of a fraud risk assessment.
David Stulb, the joint leader of Ernst & Young’s global fraud investigations and dispute services practice says businesses who pursued opportunities in exciting emerging markets such as South Africa, needed to be aware of the greater risk.
“Proper anti-fraud measures will greatly reduce the risk and allow senior management to focus on growing the business,” Stulb says.
Recently it was reported that 100 percent of the respondents in a ISS survey had indicated that they were willing to pay a bribe in order to avoid a traffic fine. The survey also found that 73 percent of the respondents paid bribes so that they would not to have to pay their water and electricity accounts.
Some 72 percent of the respondents admitting to have paid a bribe to have their telephones installed, and 65 percent paid bribe money to customs officials.
Altogether 51 percent paid bribes where pensions were concerned, 52 percent to obtain housing, and 55 percent to buy drivers’ licenses.
Professor Charl Cillers, of the University of South Africa’s Criminology Department, says around 80 percent of offenders who are released from jails will eventually land up behind bars again.
“There is a lack of sufficient rehabilitation projects and most importantly there are not enough jobs,” he says.
It is very difficult to teach self-control, he says, when there are so few jobs on offer and when poverty is so widespread.
“Criminals believe they have to steal if they want to live. It’s a never ending story.”
Cilliers says most offenders are “unteachable” especially juveniles. Jails, he says, are becoming universities of crime.
“In jail a criminal can learn all the latest tricks.”
Willie Hofmeyr, head of the Special Investigative Unit and chief of the National Prosecuting Authority’s Asset Forfeiture Unit said recently that investigations had showed that between six and eight percent of South Africans, or nearly two million people, were asked to pay bribes for services rendered by the government.
“Corruption is still a very serious problem in South Africa,” Hofmeyr said.
Hofmeyr believes that criminals see going to jail at some point almost as an occupational risk.
“As long as they know that when they come out of jail they will be well-off and while they are in jail their families will be well-looked after.”
Hofmeyr, who has called for stiffer sentences for criminals, is known for encouraging the television news and photographers to show footage of crying family members. He believes that making the experience of being arrested as unpleasant as possible will be a deterrent.
Former gang member Allan Heyl, who spent more than 20 years behind bars for a spate of bank robberies carried out along with police captain Andre Stander in the 1980s, says it is up to people to decide whether they were going to be criminals or not.
“We decide whether we are going to be law abiding citizens and it begins with simple choices, like fastening a seatbelt.”
Its not only crime and fraud where South African society has a lack of self control.
Russell Michaels the spokesman for the Financial Services Board (FSB) says a lack of self control is one of the main reasons why more and more are falling into financial difficulties.
“Access to credit is so much easier these days, so more and more people are over extending themselves and running into financial difficulty,” he says. People need to prioritise their needs and wants.
“People have to be able to differentiate between basic needs and wants, but most want to keep up with consumerism at any cost.
Michaels says the FSB has consumer education programmes in place where people are taught financial literacy skills, such as financial planning and budgeting. The FSB also backs initiatives such as the national savings week.
But it will take many years for the new culture of saving to take root.
“It will take at least a generation before the work goes through. We have to go through a process of unlearning. We have to teach the teachers. They have to teach the children, who have to teach parents. We have to create a whole new culture.”
The figures show that restraint is lacking in South African society and most experts believe that the only way to reach people is through churches and media campaigns such as Heartlines.
The Hindu Mahabathra poem says that a man who is without self-restraint always suffers misery. “Such a man brings upon himself many calamities all born of his own faults,” the poem says.
Religion might just be the way to teach South Africans self control. – Heartlines Features.
By Stuart Graham