Uproot pervasive corruption

Corruption has become so widespread in SA that there is a real danger it will become entrenched as a “normal” aspect of life. How can we stop its spread? Here’s the basis of an action plan:

Corruption should be declared a national emergency. This would mean ending the dangerous defensiveness, and in some cases denialism, prevalent in some government and political circles over the high level of corruption. The governing ANC needs to clean up and demonstrate the power of setting an example, by legally, socially and politically punishing the bad behaviour of its leaders and members.

Senior party leaders, ministers and public servants who are corrupt, even if they are powerful, must be held accountable. Only if that is done publicly will the government regain the moral authority to deal credibly with transgressions by ordinary citizens.

SA needs urgently to foster the constitutional values that reject corruption and actively cultivate a value system that rewards honesty and discourages dishonesty that public and political leaders must be judged against. Civil society must shame leaders who display corrupt values and encourage those who behave with integrity.

The Constitution must be accepted as the supreme governance framework for all laws, values and cultures. Traditional law, justice and norms must be subject to the Constitution. Cultural practices that undermine the core constitutional values cannot, and should not, be defended.

Merit-based appointments to jobs in the public service and in politics will go a long way towards reducing the patronage system of jobs for pals that fosters corruption. The CVs of those who have applied for key public positions, but have not been short-listed, must be released so the public can compare those who were appointed with those who were not, and so combat patronage appointments and the sidelining of competent but critical voices.

The capacity of institutions dealing with corruption must be strengthened. Enforcement of the state’s internal anti-corruption controls must be improved drastically. This includes managing conflicts of interests better, improved personnel screening, better performance evaluation and making procurement systems more transparent.

Although cases of corruption are exposed daily, there is no mechanism in the constitutional architecture that compels the state to act against public corruption, particularly in cases in which the perpetrators are protected by powerful political and business leaders. SA needs an independent entity that not only follows up on whether corrupt officials have been brought to book, but can also force police and public watchdogs to investigate cases of corruption exposed in the media and by whistleblowers.

There are often few consequences for those involved, especially if they are politically connected. Auditor-general Kimi Makwetu has said most corruption goes unpunished, encouraging further corruption. Lifestyle audits should be compulsory for elected and public appointments and should be open to public scrutiny.

Corruption in business is often not taken seriously by business leaders. For instance, the fixing of prices between companies to the detriment of poor consumers is rarely seen by companies as corrupt.

Sometimes business figures critical of government corruption collude in corrupt practices themselves, whether by giving kickbacks to secure contracts, or by appointing a token black person to secure access to government contracts. We have seen how private companies scramble to get the “right” people with suitable ANC connections onto their boards, in senior management, or as their empowerment partners.

We should compel firms trading on government contracts to adhere to a set of integrity standards, in which they foreswear corrupt activities. Civil society could monitor whether such companies adhere to these standards. Corrupt businesses and individuals should be barred from doing business with the public sector. Civil society, trade unions, social movements and NGOs should shame and put pressure on corrupt business, so that they feel the reputational effects of corrupt activities.

Whistleblowers, witnesses and anticorruption fighters must be protected. To be a whistle-blower, whether in the public or private sector in SA can be life-and career-threatening. Anticorruption crusaders in SA are vulnerable to attack from powerful corrupt politicians, superiors and criminals. At present, public perception is that whistleblowers are more likely to be prosecuted than the corrupt individuals.

To fight public corruption, we need increased transparency. Open access to information is a crucial tool to hold government and public representatives accountable. Government departments, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and other agencies need to make tender-recipient information publicly available. Payments to elected representatives, public servants, political parties and government departments by private companies and SOEs should also be made public.

The media has a key role to play in the exposure of corruption and should not be curtailed. The challenge is how to bring the extent of corruption to the masses and how to explain the effect of corruption on service delivery, so that ordinary citizens can hold their elected leaders and public servants more vigorously accountable.

A grassroots campaign against corruption is necessary so that the masses come to know the extent of corruption, the effect it has on public service delivery, how to monitor and report it, and the importance of holding their elected leaders and public servants accountable. One mechanism to encourage such activism could be the establishment of citizen or community forums directly corresponding to government departments, to monitor service delivery and the progress of complaints.

The debate on corruption is often racialised, thereby undermining the fight against it. On some occasions, leading black public figures have accused white critics of racism when they pointed to wrongdoing. It is just as wrong for white South Africans to view corruption or incompetence by individual leaders as a general failure of all blacks. What we must not do in our bid to debunk outrageous racial generalisations is defend individual incompetence, wrongdoing and even corruption, just because the person is black or white.

Playing the racism card for purposes of self-enrichment at the expense of the public good, or to deflect attention from individual wrongdoing, constitutes aiding corruption. We should not blame apartheid for current corruption. Blaming the legacy of apartheid has become an easy answer for not acting against corruption. While the apartheid system was corrupt, in 1994, SA established a democratic dispensation that is supposed to hold public and elected representatives to higher standards, values and behaviour.

*This article was published in BD Live. To view the article on their website click here

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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