Picture: 123RF/RONNARONG THANUTHATTAPHONG
Picture: 123RF/RONNARONG THANUTHATTAPHONG

Corruption Watch has spent much of the eight years of its existence in the era of state capture. Though there were always pockets within the political and public-sector leadership that were supportive of our work, our relationship with the state throughout that period was overwhelmingly antagonistic.

Similarly with the private sector. While we encountered many private-sector leaders concerned about the complicity of leading corporations and executives in fraud and corruption, our relationship with business during this period was characterised by conflicts with the likes of McKinsey, Cash Paymaster Services and KPMG.

Much has changed. The Zuma administration’s demise ushered in an administration that had successfully persuaded the electorate of its commitment to confront corruption and whose leadership has consistently articulated its support for “social compacting” as its preferred mode of governance.

This change in the political environment has profoundly influenced our strategies and our day-to-day work. Strategically, it has enabled us to focus on those sectors and activities where our efforts will impact most directly on the realisation of basic human rights and social justice.

This focus has dictated our intensive engagement with fighting corruption in the provision of education, healthcare and policing services, and with the dire predicament of SA’s impoverished and marginalised mining communities. Similar concerns inspire our work on corruption in the water sector; in the land reform process; and in the development of our work on gender, youth and whistle-blowers, and with immigrant communities.

While we will co-operate with government in rebuilding the broken SA state, there’s no room for complacency. This government, like any other, must be held to account

We have also attempted to identify the vulnerabilities in our legal and policy framework that enabled state capture and to advocate for policies that will plug these gaps. This is manifest in our work on the criminal justice system and in our campaign for greater transparency in the processes governing the appointment of public-sector leaders.

A second lesson that emerged from the state-capture era is the central role played by key private-sector firms and professions in facilitating public- and private-sector corruption. These include members of the legal and auditing professions, tax advisers and management consultants, and real estate agents. Our work with the private sector will focus increasingly on these facilitators of corruption.

2019 saw particularly significant gains from our strategic litigation. Our successful reviews of the Seriti commission, which had whitewashed the corrupt arms deal; and of the SA Social Security Agency’s decision to, yet again, favour Cash Paymaster Services with a massive, unlawful payment, have generated important legal precedent. Leading legal firms and practitioners have generously given of their time and expertise in our efforts to advance social justice though the courts.

During 2019, important strides were made in honouring the Ramaphosa administration’s stated commitment to engage productively with civil society. The joint government/civil society reference group charged with developing a national anti-corruption strategy is an outstanding example of the gains to be realised through co-operation, as is the establishment of the anti-corruption health forum, which has provided us with a platform to which we can refer reports of corruption in the provision of healthcare services and monitor progress in dealing with these reports.

However, while we will co-operate with government in rebuilding the broken SA state, there’s no room for complacency. This government, like any other, must be held to account.

The new administration has made some appallingly retrogressive decisions — the passing of the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Act stands out, as well as the damage wrought by state capture to all public institutions, ranging from the smallest schools to our giant state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which has been more severe than anyone could have predicted and, starting with those public institutions that deliver basic goods and services, these have to be turned around; and our decimated criminal justice institutions have yet to prosecute high-ranking perpetrators of corruption in the ranks of politicians, public-sector officials and private-sector executives.

And we have to recognise the strength of the fightback from those who feasted on public resources and abused public power for so long. The presence in parliament of some of the most brazen perpetrators of corruption insults our democracy; the destruction of the office of the public protector is of huge concern to all those who appreciated the support of a competent and courageous public protector in the dark days of state capture; and the attacks on civil society, the judiciary and the media have, if anything, intensified as corrupt, anti-democratic elements in the public and private sectors, and in political parties, attempt to recapture the state.

And so, while we will co-operate with those who oppose corruption and who seek to repair the damage done by those moneyed and with political interests who captured the state, we will maintain our vigilance against those who would seek to reverse our gains. That, above all, is our promise to those who have supported us so resolutely.

• Lewis is executive director of Corruption Watch. This is an extract from the foreword to its 2019 annual report, which was released this week.