By Siebe Anbeek
Corruption is invading South Africa like never before. Although still a long way from the extremes of Sudan or Somalia, the country continues to slide further in the rankings issued every year by the authoritative watchdog Transparency International. Hivos partner Corruption Watch is demanding a change in mentality – not just from politicians and officials, but also the public because “you get the government you deserve."
This sounds particularly credible coming from the mouth of a South African. Even before the end of apartheid, people fought hard for democratic elections and a new constitution. So how is it possible that their new, democratically-elected leaders are engaged in nepotism and self-enrichment? Former trade unionist David Lewis, director of Corruption Watch, tells us: "We fell asleep at the wheel in 1994. After winning the struggle for democracy, we thought everything would come naturally. Clearly we were mistaken, because whether you live in Sweden or South Africa, you have to keep a watchful eye on the government and be demanding."
A new battle
Corruption is rooted in South Africa at all levels of public administration. The president pays for his villa with taxpayer money, police look the other way for a small fee and teachers give good grades in exchange for sex. "The result is that the public has completely lost confidence in the government,” says Bongi Mlangeni, head of communications at Corruption Watch. “Those in power have zero credibility - which is even worse than the financial toll corruption takes.”
Both Mlangeni and Lewis agree that a change in mentality is needed to fight corruption and restore confidence in the public sector. That holds true for government officials, who must realise that their misbehaviour will not go unpunished, but also for citizens, who ought to demand that such misconduct be penalised. Corruption Watch wants to bring about this change through more than just making revelations. The organisation relies on a large team of professionals to carry out investigations and compile reports, amongst whom journalists, lawyers, former police officers and campaign workers. Their work is bolstered by public campaigns, awareness raising, policy recommendations, legal charges against corrupt officials and protection for whistleblowers.
Things were different when Corruption Watch was founded in January 2012. "When we started we thought of ourselves primarily as a research organisation," says Lewis. "But the public response was overwhelming. We were inundated with text messages, emails and phone calls. Then we didn’t have the capacity and the power to investigate all reports individually, but thanks to the public support we were getting, we managed to become a driving force in the fight against corruption. "
Although not every report can be examined individually, input from citizens still forms the basis of Corruption Watch’s work. “The public decides what we focus on,” Lewis explains. “For example, right now we’re turning our attention specifically to corruption in the educational system because that’s what we’ve had the most reports about. We investigate all kinds of corruption at schools, from an education department clerk offering jobs to friends and family, to learners at a no-fees school being forced to give teachers money, or a drunken principal embezzling funds. We contact the media, point out who’s responsible and inform concerned citizens how they can call people to account themselves."
Corruption Watch can list countless examples of success. The organisation’s actions have saved several whistleblowers from prosecution, forced corrupt officials to resign, made the Johannesburg police department revise its policies and have been hugely amplified through traditional and social media.
Lewis is proud of the results, but prefers to draw attention to something else: "It’s always good when a few bad apples are forced to resign, but what’s much more important is that you can no longer open a newspaper without reading something about corruption. It seems like politicians are beginning to realise that things can’t go on this way, that they can’t assume they’ll get away with their misconduct anymore. Citizens are becoming more demanding. We’re waking up again."