The rich can’t steal, right?

Can people be too rich to steal or act in a corrupt manner? ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe suggested this was true of Cyril Ramaphosa, the newly elected president of the ANC, when he said: “We have a president who has money, who’s wealthy, who will not be tempted to steal … If he steals, we will ask him ‘Why do you steal, because you have enough?’”

More recently, Huffington Post South Africa editor-at-large Ferial Haffajee argued that former Shoprite chief executive officer Whitey Basson should lead Eskom, in part because “He’s so rich, he won’t steal”.

This echoes the views expressed by CNBC’s Larry Kudlow, who was an informal adviser to US President Donald Trump’s team for months. Kudlow wrote for the National Review, “Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption.”

The flawed belief that the rich don’t steal and aren’t corrupt shows just how limited the understanding of theft is. And I get why some people don’t think of it that way; too often it’s not presented as such. It’s presented as if the excess of the rich is always achieved through aboveboard methods and should be applauded, like through the annual Forbes list of the most rich and wealthy.

The lack of attention to the way some wealth comes at the expense or deprivation of others highlights the importance of expanding our understanding of what theft and corruption are, because some of the rich do steal. They just often do it in more sophisticated ways, in ways that aren’t always obviously criminal, but the outcome is the same: other people are deprived of something, whether that’s wages, revenues or resources such as land and water that belong to us all.

This is true even of our most powerful leaders.

Take Trump, who was not just born into a wealthy family, but used that wealth as a springboard to building an empire that has had him listed on the Forbes 400 for decades. Acquisitions and property have been at the centre of that empire, despite its spanning a large variety of industries. Holding the empire together is a long string of allegations and lawsuits for failing to pay workers, cheating contractors of their payments and fraud. His unethical practices did not end when he became president. Allegations of monetising the presidency and questions about his tax returns surround him.

Unlike Trump, Ramaphosa was not born into wealth. His wealth came after his resignation from Parliament and as ANC secretary-general, when he joined the private sector. In 2017, his wealth was reported to be valued at R6.4bn, with investments being the main source of it. Ramaphosa’s campaign was run on an anticorruption ticket, with some seeing his win as championing an anticorruption stance. Yet, there are pieces of his past that should ring alarm bells.

Shanduka, a group founded by Ramaphosa in 2001, was named in the Paradise Papers leak. While there is no wrongdoing suggested on his part, the group’s involvement in deals structured in Mauritius, a tax haven known for being a secrecy jurisdiction, should be cause for concern. More so as this was not the first time that a business in which Ramaphosa was involved has been found to be shifting money. In 2015, it was revealed that “MTN, Africa’s biggest cellphone company, moved billions of rands earned in African countries to offshore tax havens while Ramaphosa chaired its board between 2001 and 2013”.

A damning report by the Alternative Information & Development Centre showed how Lonmin, a British mining company for which Ramaphosa had been a board member, was shifting profit out of South Africa. This shows not only that Lonmin could have afforded a R12 500 living wage for miners, but also that the company had the financial resources to provide decent work and living conditions for its employees. This might have prevented a mine worker protest which, after police intervened, ultimately led to 34 people being killed on a single day, with 10 others having been killed the week before.

But the Marikana massacre is not Ramaphosa’s only connection to Lonmin. His position there was secured when Shanduka undercut the community in an empowerment deal which saw the company benefit from vendor financing, including advanced dividend loans amounting to billions.

Unlike Trump, Ramaphosa did divest from some of his businesses on taking public office, but there are still enough similarities between the way the two men made their wealth to be instructive for those who think wealth makes one immune to theft and corruption.

What both Trump and Ramaphosa exemplify is how the rich do take from others, even if it’s not always considered criminal.

Of course, Trump and Ramaphosa are not unique. They are part of a global economic system that, by design, enables theft and corruption by the rich.

An example of this is how the wealthy can conceal their wealth and undermine tax systems, as evidenced by both the Panama and Paradise Paper leaks.

It’s important that any public discourse using language and making claims that strengthen an association in the public imagination between criminality and poverty is disrupted. These are rooted in classism, which further stigmatises poor people as being uniquely capable of theft and corruption. It also insinuates that only a certain class of people is fit to lead, a perception that has no basis in truth as evidenced by Trump, Ramaphosa and many others.

Moeti has worked in civic activism at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. She was a 2017 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti


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