Three weeks ago I was invited to participate in an anti-corruption webinar hosted by the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. Of course with corruption featuring prominently in South Africa’s democratic lexicon, I was intrigued by the names that were on the list, which included the Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, the Director of the Ahmed Kathrada. Foundation, Nishaan Bolton, and Wits academic and executive chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation as well as author of the book Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, Prof William Gumede. And so perhaps it was my vanity of being asked to participate and being the only female on the panel that I agreed to do so. It may have also had something to do with the idea that I did not want to tempt the cosmic laws of karma.
In thinking about what I would say as well as being guided by the organisers to consider anti-corruption interventions, I was unsure of how to frame such measures or whether any such effort would be negligible in light of the colossal nature of what we are dealing with. The dilemma that I found myself in was that it would have been easier to point out the push and pull factors underpinning this gargantuan scourge on our society rather than trying to find innovative ways of demonstrating how this acute and entrenched plague can be defeated.
This lead me to consider the way the narrative on corruption has been framed as a more of a macroeconomic crisis so that any pending intervention has to be constructed through that lens. I was also confronted by the predicament that as much as we are intolerant of state money being stolen or the rules and regulations around tender processes being flouted by those in the higher echelons of power and their crony networks, at times we tend to put on blinkers and indulge in complacency where such behavior is taking place in our very own communities and institutions. If we are so distrustful and demand accountability, transparency, and legitimacy of those who are supposed to govern us, then by the same token we should apply similar norms, principles, standards and values to all aspects of our lives, especially in our communities so as to avoid double standards or more dangerously ‘throwing stones in a glass house’.
With this in mind it cannot be that recasting the social contract between state and the citizenry should be the only recourse to address this blight on society. If anything the social contract between state and the electorate has to also be complemented by a bottom approach that starts with an introspection in our communities where this malaise also manifests and percolates.
Lessons from the UDF
The United Democratic Front (UDF) emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s during complex and uncertain times. The verligtes (‘the enlightened’) camp of the Nationalist Party had gained control of the Party with P.W. Both becoming the leader and hence President of the South African apartheid state. P.W. Botha, being a military man, used this knowledge to embark upon a tactic adapted from the French Militarist, General Andre Beaufre, called Total Strategy, which was based on what was seen as the Total Onslaught. For PW Both such an approach meant that no stone should be left to its own devices and this required a comprehensive policy framework that combined a broad reformist agenda underpinned by an intelligence/National Security Management System (NSMS). The latter was activated where the reform agenda fell short. The NSMS operated on the basis of infiltrating all levels of the external and internal architecture of the anti-apartheid movement to the extent of carrying out political assassinations, turning political prisoners into Askaris, and creating culture of mistrust and mayhem regarding who were informants and spying for the State security apparatus.
It was in this climate of complete perverseness that the UDF was born. It was a push back against an ubiquitous Frankenstein that held no legitimacy nor moral authority. Despite what some may have seen as an insurmountable fight, the UDF represented a cohesive framework of community based democratic activism. In spite of the perennial threats and putting their lives at risk, communities became hotbeds of apartheid resistance. Unwilling to allow an illegitimate state to use its brute force that left destruction, unbearable suffering, and the most vile sense of repression, dignity and the sense of resilience and perseverance could not deter the spirit of those that embraced sacrifice and were willing to speak truth to justice in their action of achieving a democratic South Africa for all who live in it.
Ultimately it was the stalemate of an illegitimate state, despite its military strength to overpower, that could not achieve legitimacy and win the hearts and minds of the majority of ordinary people. On the other hand, it was the precise nature of the UDF as well as the exiled networks that had attained and cultivated a sense of legitimacy for a just and equal South Africa demonstrated that managed to rise in spite of spurious actions of the most excessive and exploitative regime. The message from this stalemate was: the notion that the apartheid state was an unsurmountable behemoth was ridiculous at least and bemusing at most. A typical Samson and Goliath moment.
If anything the UDF teaches us that by being robust and intolerable and not accepting anything less than a political, economic, and social transformation had led to the weakening of the apartheid state. And so it is our own past that should provide the roadmap in defeating corruption. If, indeed, this can be done based on the actions of the UDF, then:
What is holding us back from doing so?
Why is it now that the push back against corruption must only be effected by the state?
What is our responsibility in this fight?
How has it come that looking outside of our own history and anti-apartheid struggle we assume that defining a United Anti-Corruption Front has to borrow from external interventions and not be nurtured and informed by our historical experience?
Whose interests are we trying to satisfy when we reinforce the recommendations by external agencies and not use our past as the basis to define our fight against corruption, nepotism, and the debilitating nature of a rentier state?
Finally, what has happened to the community based vibrancy that laid the apartheid machinery bare and exposed its hypocrisy?
After all we are the country that went up against apartheid and won. Surely then the fight against corruption can ignite the same fire as the UDF did.
But what will this require?
The simple answer is a social re-engineering of a UDF type compact. Such a framework needs to start by looking at how we can advance a bottom up approach in defeating the devastation of illicit transactions that deprives and robs vulnerable communities of their socio-economic rights.
Embedding a New United Anti-Corruption Front
At a time when national morale and levels of distrust are beyond characterizations of just being low, it seems that the time has come to activate a UDF style Anti-Corruption community based compact. This will entail some hard truths that have to be recognized about the type of democratic activism that will shape the efficacy and compact.
First, we need to support the whistleblowers who have traveled a lonely and often dangerous road in exposing the rot. We can honour them by denouncing their treatment by saying ‘An Injury to one is an Injury to all’. In doing so we have to become our own whistleblowers, shining the light in dark places and asking the awkward questions. This does not mean that we have to become vigilantes. Instead where we notice that there is an inappropriate transactions taking place whether it is at the shop around the corner that we visit, we must demand that the shopkeeper provide a detailed receipt that outlines the price of the items purchased that stipulates the VAT amount. Most times invoice mispricing takes place where the VAT and the price of items become blurred. At the same time we need to believe that the relevant authorities have some level of capacity and alert them to such behaviour where there seems to be questionable transactions happening when it comes pricing and invoicing. But at the same time this course of action should not become an open ticket for competitors to indulge in vindictive behavior or pursue witch hunts against the competition. Again I will emphasis ‘don’t throw stones in glass houses’. Alongside this white collar crime and corruption in the private sector must also interrogated with the same vigour.
Second, we should name and shame those in our communities who have deliberately engaged in corrupt practices or have even been enablers of it. This will entail marginalizing them from entering and using religious institutions to legitimate their devious behaviour and seek salvation by donating large sums of money to places of worship. Our religious bodies should take a firm stand in not allowing these corruptors to use our temples, mosques, churches or synagogues for purposes of money laundering so that they can cleanse and redeem their souls. While such donations should not be accepted at all costs where it has been it must be put into a special escrow account and returned to the relevant authorities. Of course linked to this is that such people should be seen as a disgrace to our communities rather than being hailed as ‘Good Samaritans ’ and hence treated as if they are incarnations of a higher being. Such people need to be frowned upon. Our religious institutions need to play an integrated role in alleviating the institutional nature of corruption. It cannot be that corruption is denounced in one instance and then in another instance the corruptors are performing sacred rituals which is the worst paradox of all.
Third the time has also come for our temples, mosques, churches and synagogues to speak truth to power and act collectively in chanting that ‘we do not need your ill-gotten gains’. Our religious institutions can also be innovative and set a precedent by showing that their financial status and donations (including non-financial resources) are above board and from people who are honest, hardworking and genuinely committed to the path of spiritual enlightenment and working for the betterment of their communities. In addition religious institutions need to make sure that the those that are employed in their service are not really ‘sheep in wolf skins’ defrauding ordinary people of their hard earned livelihoods. Or for that matter who set up parallel processes that do not follow the proper financial and regulatory decisions of the institution. Such people if caught must also be held accountable and should not be considered above the law and treated differently because I am sure that nowhere in our religious scriptures it says that it is ok for a person of the cloth or serving in the name of religion can engage in immoral behavior and, by default, be exempted.
Third, we need to compile and populate a community register of names of those engaging in corruption whether directly or indirectly. This registry must become the ‘holy grail’ highlighting where the pulse points are in this scourge, who are the actors and at what level(s) such activities are permeating our communities. We should not be afraid to even take on the underworld who have for far too long terrorized our communities and robbed young people of their futures. It is this underworld that enjoys ties with the political and economic elite networks. The Police too should be aware that their fudging of the law will not be tolerated including the ‘hungry’ bureaucratic that performs his duty as a quid pro quo basis, and notwithstanding educators who use financial and other inducements to get their positions. Such a registry must be published in weekly based community newspapers so that the transgressors will know that they are being watched. But it should also become a significant platform in shedding light on the interpersonal relations that the Chinese have termed ‘Guanxi’, which have been crafted for selfish gains.
Finally it is time we take back our country by realizing that the democratic activism that saw the fall of apartheid have made us a proud nation. It is that pride that struck the world with awe which we need to remember in re-imagining how a new democratic activism can be nurtured by creating a new social community contract. A contract that binds us together through the principles of the Constitution but also by our humanity in remembering what the previous generation left as its legacy: a free and fair South Africa. This should be the rallying point: what legacy do we want to leave for future generations?
The UDF showed that being fearless is a primary factor in any social justice struggle. The brutality of an illegitimate state was not cause enough to shy away from the fight. In a similar way defeating corruption despite the threats and push back by those who feel that they have impunity remains a significant condition to stand tall and demand that we will not be bullied whether by state officials or those in our communities who have put their interests ahead of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. This new democratic activism should also recognize that corruption knows no race, class, or gender. Through a new social community compact on anti-corruption the message is we will no longer accept our country being mortgaged for a few measly cents. As I am writing this blog I cannot help but remember the passion and vibrancy of Dr. Tajhudeen Abdul-Raheem, who was a larger than life personality and one of the true social justice activists that I felt blessed to have met. Taju died tragically in 2009 on Africa Day in Nairobi. If he was here today he would have reminded me ‘Don’t agonise! Organise!. His words cannot be more relevant now than it was during the days of the UDF. Na gode Taju.
Naidu is a Senior Research Associate based with the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed here are personal