• We have been hit with so many corruption scandals, we have become inured to it
A news story about a huge controversy in South Korean politics over a gift of a luxury handbag caught my eye recently and made me wonder if we in Kenya, and the rest of Africa for that matter, will ever reach the stage where such a thing could threaten the survival of a government.
Briefly, what happened in South Korea was that footage was leaked of the country’s First Lady allegedly accepting a luxury bag as a gift from a pastor, and this ahead of elections in April.
According to the BBC report I read: “Spy camera footage released late last year appeared to show a pastor presenting a Dior bag to her. The video, published by left-wing YouTube channel Voice of Seoul, is reported to have been secretly filmed by the pastor Choi Jae-young using a camera embedded in his watch.”
The video appears to show the pastor going into a shop to buy the designer bag worth $2,200 or nearly Sh360,000, and then visiting a business owned by the First Lady and filming himself handing over the expensive gift to the First Lady, who asks him: "Why do you keep bringing me these things?"
The South Korean currency is called the South Korean Won or KRW, and KRW100 is less than 7 cents or about Sh12. The controversial bag cost KRW 3 million.
According to the BBC, “South Korean law makes it illegal for public officials and their spouses to receive gifts worth more than 1m won in one go, or a total of 3m won within a fiscal year.”
The incident happened in September 2022, and why the video has been released now in the run-up to the elections is anyone’s guess, but the fact is the incident has caused such a stir in the country, the ruling party is reported to be in “disarray”.
While the video does not explicitly show the First Lady accepting the gift, the President’s office has gone into official spin mode, confirming to media that the bag was received and was "being managed and stored as a property of the government".
The South Korean President was set to address the nation over the issue, and a recent poll showed that 69 per cent of the country's eligible voters want an explanation from the President about his wife's actions.
According to the Guardian newspaper, which also reported on the case, the South Korean First Lady “is no stranger to controversy, having weathered a series of allegations, including plagiarism concerning her academic writings, résumé-padding and accusations of stock manipulation. The controversies have proven a headache and a source of embarrassment for her husband”.
The Financial Times, meanwhile, reports that the scandal has sparked a row within the ruling party and criticisms of “authoritarian” conduct ahead of the elections in April.
As I read up on the story, I tried to think about whether such a gift, or even the story of an expensive handbag or briefcase, or watch or car, being given to a senior politician or their spouse, would even raise an eyebrow in a country such as Kenya.
I came to the conclusion that even if such a story ever came out, a country like ours, where many seem to shrug off stories such as those of “ghost workers” earning hundreds of millions from a county government, would probably think making such a fuss over a designer handbag was overkill.
That, right there, is where I think our problem lies. For 60 years of our independence, we have been hit with so many stories and facts about corruption, which gets worse with every year, that we appear to have become inured to such violence against our economy.
The time has come when we rediscovered our moral outrage as a nation so that where we see corruption, be it a big deal or something like a gift being given to a public figure, we don’t just grumble quietly and move on.