Opinion editorial: ‘United front required against corruption’ – Prof Russel Botman

There are “encouraging signs” of the growth of a “strong civic movement against corruption,” writes  Stellenbosch University Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Prof Russel Botman in an opinion piece published by Politicsweb on 27 March 2013.

Prof Russel Botman (Picture: ANTON JORDAAN)

Prof Russel Botman (Picture: ANTON JORDAAN)

“A number of anti-corruption initiatives are gaining traction, both in civil society and within government and the ruling party. It is now crucial to keep up the momentum,” he argues, proceeding to propose a three-step approach “to counteract the vortex that is dragging us down” as a nation.

The complete text of his article follows below.

United front required against corruption

We need to take our responsibility as citizens seriously and play our part to get our country back on track, writes RUSSEL BOTMAN.

South Africa faces a number of serious challenges that require our urgent attention as a nation. In crucial respects we have gone from a miracle nation to a nation that needs a miracle to make our hard-earned democracy work.

So, what is it that has gone wrong?

Some government officials and public servants fail to do their jobs properly, despite getting paid huge salaries. We see public services deteriorating, for example, ailing health facilities, an increasingly potholed road network, and municipal water purification and sewerage works that are collapsing

So-called “tenderpreneurs” are exploiting their ties with the ruling party to get lucrative government contracts. Corrupt public servants steal from the state coffers – public funds that are supposed to be used for the good of all in society.

Little wonder then that we are experiencing what has become known as “service delivery protests” at an ever increasing rate. Hardly a day goes by without angry citizens taking to the streets somewhere to reject poorly built low-cost housing, demand better education, and so on. It is ironic that the socio-political space occupied by anti-apartheid protests under the previous regime is now being filled by protests against the perceived failures of a democratically elected government.

The protests, the strikes, the tragic massacre at Marikana last year – these things are all warning signs. They tell us that people feel that their human dignity is not being respected, that their human rights are being trampled underfoot. This causes a growing social anger, which we ignore at our own peril.

Far too many of those in positions of leadership actually promote only their own interests. That is why we have such a problem with corruption – and its variants, nepotism, favouritism and clientelism. Too many leaders are not living up to the trust placed in them by their followers.

It would be a mistake to consider citizens mindless followers – as the litany of protest actions clearly demonstrates. As we know from our struggle history, the seemingly impossible can be achieved when ordinary people stand together for a common cause.

We cannot blame everything that has gone wrong in our country on a failure of leadership. Democracy empowers citizens to choose their government, and to use civil freedoms to pressurise their representatives to fulfil their duties. Hence Joseph de Maistre, a French philosopher, said in the 19th century already: “Every nation has the government it deserves”.

So, in asking what we can do about our current challenges, we need to take our responsibility as citizens seriously and play our part to get our country back on track. Let us look at corruption, for instance.

Corruption is a universal phenomenon occurring in the public and private sector, in Africa and the West. Having also been a problem under apartheid, it is not something unique to the “new” South Africa post 1994.

To defeat corruption, we need to understand its effects. Corruption is like a whirlpool pulling us under water. It is a vortex spinning with increasing power.

We need a three-step approach to counteract it. Firstly, we must break its speed, then we must stop it completely, and finally we must reverse it and win back what we have lost.

This might be easier said than done, but we will only succeed if the forces working against corruption grow stronger than those powering the vortex. We must start a spiral of our own — a counter-spiral to first slow, then stop, and eventually reverse the whirlpool of corruption.

How do we do that? We can learn a lot from that which we want to defeat. For instance, corruption is seldom perpetrated by just one person. It requires collusion. Similarly we must work together to stop it. We needed a strong civic movement against corruption.

There are encouraging signs that such a uniting front is taking shape. A number of anti-corruption initiatives are gaining traction, both in civil society and within government and the ruling party. It is now crucial to keep up the momentum.

At Stellenbosch University (SU) a structure that plays a valuable role in this regard is the Anti-corruption Centre for Education and Research (ACCERUS) within the School of Public Leadership (SPL) of our Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences.

The Centre provides education and training to the senior public officials who make up most of the School’s students in order to help make existing anti-corruption mechanisms and regulations more effective. Its mission is to support government institutions in the building of in-house anti-corruption capacity and expertise.

Gaining such expertise will allow public officials to better understand the nature and causes of corruption, to reduce opportunities for corruption, and to detect, investigate, and decisively deal with occurrences of corruption.

ACCERUS was established in 2010 shortly after the launch of the University’s HOPE Project, a set of development goals through which we are tackling pressing needs in society. What has become very clear is that critical citizenship goes hand in hand with responsible citizenship. This is what informs the concept of active citizenship espoused in the National Development Plan.

The struggle against corruption requires of us to fight poverty, promote human dignity and health, strengthen democracy and human rights, strive for peace and security, and do our bit for environmental sustainability. If one wants to change the world, fighting corruption is an excellent place to start.

And that fight begins with each of us taking personal responsibility. We should not pay that bribe, even if it means coughing up for a traffic fine instead. We should not take that bribe, even if we feel we need a greater income. And we should blow the whistle on corruption so that the risk of getting caught increases.

* Professor Russel Botman is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University. He was a speaker at an anti-corruption gathering hosted by Dagbreek Residence on 4 March. The campaigns “Unshamedly Ethical” and “Exposed” were part of the event (click here for a news report).