MZUKISI QOBO: The legacy of Corruption Watch and the challenges ahead
Corruption Watch has achieved much in the first decade of its existence, but there is more work still to be done
This year, Corruption Watch observes a decade since it was formed in January 2012. It is an initiative borne of concerted action across civil society, including trade unionists, civic leaders and business leaders, and was formed as a response to the growing scourge of corruption in society and the negative effect on public institutions, public morale, and service delivery.
David Lewis, a seasoned trade unionist and organiser who had at the time just stepped down as chairperson of the Competition Tribunal, took over the mantle as executive director of Corruption Watch. Mavuso Msimang, an experienced public servant and civic leader, is another figure who, as long-serving chairperson of the organisation’s board, lent moral authority and intellectual weight to the organisation. Msimang was preceded by Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, who sat as chair for three years.
Corruption Watch grew from humble beginnings, largely inspired by grassroots activists, to become a highly respected and sought-after voice on corruption. Calling on members of the public to submit information on corruption they experienced, the organisation realised that many heroes in the fight against corruption are unsung whistle-blowers who are often failed by the state, despised by politicians, some even murdered while doing honest work.
But there also heroes in the dedicated, highly energetic, and youthful activists who operate behind the scenes as staff at Corruption Watch.
Over the years Corruption Watch has been consistent in exposing acts of corruption in the public sector, calling for greater protection for whistle-blowers, and championing clean government. The organisation has helped create greater public awareness about corruption and the need to oppose it in all its forms. It has also played an important advocacy role in supporting the work of former Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela in initiating the State of Capture report, pressing for the establishment of the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, and in keeping the public informed about acts of corruption in various sectors.
On the surface it may seem that corruption has grown, rather than diminished. Corruption, like a weed, spreads very fast. As long as the state does not take appropriate measures against it, and as long as the rule of law is weak, corruption will continue to be a menace to society.
Organisations such as Corruption Watch, working with other civil society organisations, act as a countervailing force to slowly but surely, throttle corruption.
Such organisations have made it difficult for corrupt individuals and groups to do their work brazenly while also making it easier for the public to report acts of corruption — this is one reason for the apparent increase in corruption, as more is being exposed. Our recently released corruption report for 2021 provides empirical evidence of the concerning levels of corruption in the country. That evidence also serves as our motivation for the ongoing struggle and gives Corruption Watch its raison d’être.
Some of Corruption Watch’s notable achievements over the last decade include a court application with Right2Know, which persuaded the court to declare the report and the findings of the flawed Seriti commission into allegations of corruption in SA’s controversial arms deal invalid, and set them aside. Further, through persistence and commitment Corruption Watch was able to extract from President Cyril Ramaphosa a promise that the Political Party Funding Act would come into effect before the last local government election — and it did.
Our advocacy for the transparent and merit-based appointment of top leaders in institutions that support democracy has resulted in acceptance by parliamentary committees of many of our recommendations. We have seen, in the last few years, an unprecedented number of appointments that were open to public scrutiny. This means that those leaders are less likely to be political appointees to carry out despicable agendas. Finally, Corruption Watch has built an extensive, accessible and understandable record of the hearings of the Zondo commission into state capture, which is now releasing its final reports in stages.
More recently, Corruption Watch has launched an array of initiatives to contribute to a clean government that serves the public effectively. Transparency in public procurement, reforming and strengthening law enforcement, and leadership appointment remain critical areas of focus for the organisation. On strengthening law enforcement, at the end of 2021 we launched the Veza Tool, a web-based app to help and support the public when they interact with the SA Police Service. On public procurement we have launched Procurement Watch, a portal that aggregates information published by National Treasury on tender deviations and extensions and suppliers on the restricted lists. It provides a convenient way of monitoring and analysing procurement-related activities and picking up on any irregularities.
Our work is not done
Corruption lies at the core of dysfunction in the state. It corrodes the foundations for a healthy and functioning society and robs future generations of the quality of life that public institutions should deliver. Its effects are evident in the ballooning government debt, the underperformance and mismanagement of state-owned enterprises, in lack of resources to deliver quality public services to marginalised communities, and the growing decline in the quality of infrastructure and care in public hospitals and public education.
It is noteworthy that corruption is a campaigning issue by political parties or independent candidates in municipal and general elections, which means it is ostensibly frowned upon.
There is more work to be done to turn the tide against corruption. This is why the work of Corruption Watch cannot slacken now, as the organisation marks a milestone of 10 years of existence. It will, however, require us to redouble our efforts if we are to successfully overcome the hydra-headed monster of corruption. This also needs collaboration across civil society, the business community, and state agencies that are tasked with checking corruption.
• Qobo is acting chair of the Corruption Watch board.
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