David Lewis. Picture: SUPPLIED
David Lewis. Picture: SUPPLIED

It’s always easy to spot David Lewis’s voice on the radio as he comments on the issues of the day, especially on anything related to corruption. His voice is not only familiar but also inspiring. He seems to speak for all of us. All of us who are against corruption, that is. All of us who are committed to inclusive growth in our economy. All of us who believe that we can build a decent society and hold our leaders to account. 

Lewis recently retired from his position as director of Corruption Watch, an organisation he helped form. He has been a great servant of justice and development in SA over many years. Indeed, his career has mirrored SA’s struggles, aspirations and disappointments.

He has been a trade unionist, academic, policymaker, regulator, company board member and NGO leader. He possesses a sharp and wide-ranging intelligence. He is a brilliant commentator and a formidable writer. Most of all he has deep integrity and an old-fashioned sense of service to society. He has never shied away from fighting the good fight. His quiet yet steely courage is matched by an impatience with injustice. 

Growing up in Klerksdorp, he experienced the effects of apartheid at close quarters and was appalled at the deprivation and destruction it wrought. Graduating with a degree in economics from the University of Cape Town (UCT), he joined the nascent trade union movement in the 1970s, organising workers throughout the Western Cape. He led the General Workers’ Union and was a driving force in independent worker organisations, leading several major strikes and helping to build the independent nonracial unions that eventually formed Cosatu. 

After a stint studying in the US he became one of the leading democratic policymakers of the 1990s. A founder of the Development Policy Research Unit at UCT and of the Industrial Strategy Project, he played a key role in the formation of Nedlac and was a leading board member of the Industrial Development Corporation. In the mid-1990s he was appointed to chair the Presidential Commission on Labour Market Policy, trying to chart a course between worker rights and the requirements of business.

Rare gem

Perhaps most significantly, he was the first chair of the Competition Tribunal when it was formed in 1999, excelling at the complex task of assessing legal arguments while keeping a close eye on economic consequences. An economist by training, he grasped legal complexities easily and gave seasoned senior counsel a run for their money. He chaired the tribunal for a decade, establishing expertise, setting out a workable jurisprudence and helping build a rare gem in SA institutional life. He was also the chair of the International Competition Network and his expertise was sought around the world.

But it is perhaps as a corruption fighter that South Africans will recognise Lewis best. In 2012, at the behest of Zwelinzima Vavi and others, Lewis helped form Corruption Watch and became its director. In so doing he took on a monster and became a leading player in the fight against state capture. He has led legal challenges, built social alliances against corruption, and ensured the issue remains high on the agenda.

The Zondo commission has recently recommended the establishment of a high-level, independent anticorruption body. If and when this happens, it will in no small measure be due to the kind of leadership that Lewis has provided, and will take forward the struggle that he has championed so effectively.

Although he has been seriously ill, Lewis continues to play an active role in SA life. He is an outstanding writer and an avid reader with a wide-ranging knowledge of policy issues, history and politics and sport. Let us hope that his long and extraordinary service to SA continues well into the future. 

Bethlehem is chief ESG Officer at Sedibelo Platinum. She has worked in the forestry, renewable energy, housing and property sectors as well as in local and national government, and is a director of the Industrial Development Corporation.

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