You only have to skim through the headlines from time to time to realize that South Africa is in deep trouble. Corruption seems to have seeped into every nook and cranny of society, leaving virtually no sector or institution untouched.
A history of corruption
Although the scale of current corruption seems unprecedented, the phenomenon itself has been with us for a very long time. In South Africa, the colonial and apartheid eras had their fair share. The hope that democracy would usher in a new era of primitive government was quickly thwarted, with the first major case of farcical public sector corruption in the form of a multi-billion dollar arms deal around 1999.
Former President Nelson Mandela said towards the end of his term: “Our hope for the future also depends on our resolve as a nation in the face of the scourge of corruption. Success will require an acceptance that, in many ways, we are a sick society.
His words came true when South Africa’s so-called “decade of corruption” under former President Jacob Zuma (2009-2018) robbed taxpayers of staggering sums. State capture losses are estimated at a third of the country’s GDP, eclipsing those of the arms deal. The Zondo Commission’s Fourth Report on State Capture, detailing state capture at Eskom, Transnet, and the Free State’s asbestos and housing scandals, once again underscored the devastating impact of corruption on the poor.
Corruption in the private sector is, of course, equally endemic. The capture of the South African state, for example, would not have been possible without the involvement of international audit firms, banks and real estate agencies. And as Lord Peter Hain, former British Labor MP and anti-apartheid campaigner, recently observed: “Governments that turn a blind eye are also part of the scandal. Unless the British, American, Chinese, Indian and Emirati governments cooperate with each other, state capture will happen again, whether in South Africa or elsewhere.
In the 2021 annual report published by Corruption Watch, the non-profit organization revealed that the bulk of corruption or other forms of misconduct investigated in the last year stemmed from the public sector. The most prevalent forms of corruption identified were maladministration, corruption in procurement, fraud and misappropriation of resources. Then there is also dereliction of duty, bribery or extortion, and bribery in employment, adding to the alarming 36,000 complaints received since 2012.
The causes of corruption
Corruption Watch attributes the high prevalence of corruption to “a leadership crisis where politicians and administrators serve their personal, factional, and private interests, rather than the interests of the people or the Constitution.”
In the available literature, there seems to be a general consensus on the most common root causes of corruption around the world: greed, high levels of market and political monopolization, low levels of democracy, ethical bankruptcy, low civil participation and low political transparency, high levels of bureaucracy and inefficient administrative structures, low press freedom and low economic freedom.
Many of these causes can be ticked off the South African checklist, with our law enforcement bodies such as SAPS and the National Prosecuting Authority appearing ill-equipped to stem the overwhelming tide.
Effects of Corruption
The effects of corruption are devastating on all fronts. State resources are stretched thin, with funds for vital sectors such as health and education ending up in private pockets. This makes any form of development program virtually impossible. Corruption also erodes our social fabric as a nation, diminishing trust not only in our elected leaders and state institutions, but also in the people around us. In an environment where the emphasis is on personal gain, all notions of “ubuntu” and “serving the greater good” simply disappear. We are getting poorer as a nation in every way imaginable.
The perceived lack of retaliation adds fuel to the fire. With very few people brought to justice after the arms deal, a culture of impunity has been created which has deepened corruption in all sectors. The other deadly enemy in the fight against corruption is complacency. South Africans have become accustomed to turning a blind eye to corrupt practices, even accepting them as normal, far too scared to change their ways, speak out or sound the alarm for fear of losing positions.
There is, however, a significant group that is still not involved in corrupt practices and has much less incentive to maintain the status quo. This group is our youth.
Young people as ideal fighters against corruption
“If a country is to be free from corruption and become a nation of beautiful minds, I am convinced that there are three key members of society who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher.
These are the words of former Indian President and aerospace scientist, Abdul Kalam. That good ethics and morals should ideally be taught from an early age in a safe home environment remains true. But the sad reality of our South African society is that many students are the product of broken homes and absent or uninvolved parents.
Despite this barrier, young people are generally relatively open to change and influence when they arrive on our higher education campuses. At this “coming of age” phase of their lives, they are still deciding – not just what they want become but about who they want be. We have a unique window of opportunity to encourage them to move away from pursuing narrow self-interests towards a society-focused vision.
There is also a valuable set of characteristics that many young people in South Africa possess, often shaped by experience and circumstances. They have passion, resilience, drive, and innovation – traits that can help them succeed in whatever they decide to do. The fact that they are “digital natives” also means that they are perfectly positioned to find original and inventive ways to implement new technologies; which has become essential in the fight against corruption. Simply put, young people have what it takes to become champions in the fight against corruption.
Another indisputable fact: young people form a significant part of our South African population. The latest statistics published by Stats SA show that individuals in the 15-34 age bracket constitute 63.3% of our population. With 66.5% youth unemployment, they are also the group most affected by the devastating effect of corruption on job creation.
And they are our future leaders. They have every interest in turning the tide on a scourge that obscures their own horizons. Nothing will change if they or they don’t become agents of that change – ethical and socially responsible next-generation leaders who can help build a better world.
Practical interventions against corruption
The University of the Free State (UFS) has launched a corruption writing contest students to come up with meaningful and practical steps on how to combat it. The competition is open to all postgraduate students enrolled at UFS and final-year undergraduate students at our three campuses in all disciplines and faculties. This is largely the result of our mandate to proactively respond to societal challenges, speak truth to power and improve accountability.
We also strongly believe in bringing about change through collaboration, which is why we run the competition in partnership with established and respected anti-corruption organizations such as the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac ), Corruption Watch, the Organization Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), Accountability Now, the private sector and the public persons concerned. The contest ends on May 13, 2022.
As an institution, we want to unequivocally denounce corruption. And we think it’s time to activate what is probably our greatest weapon in the fight against corruption: our youth.
Get young people on board
To ensure the future sustainability of any anti-corruption effort, it is essential that they become co-creators of solutions and not mere recipients of plans and policies in which they played no part in creating. But they also need to know that their contribution will have a real impact.
Therefore, as important as it is to have initiatives like this to create awareness, the real test lies in what we do with what they offer. We need to Listen for them. And we must follow up with concrete actions if they offer practical and achievable solutions.
Because if we lose the support of our young people, we have already lost the fight. DM