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By Mavuso Msimang
First published on News24

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Arundhati Roy

The past year, 2020, will go down in history as one of monumental shifts and changes in how we live our lives.

It was a time when the world collapsed in on itself, as countries turned inwards in panic: imposed lockdowns, isolated their populations, banned travel and public gatherings, restricted movement of citizens, and economies ground to a halt.

Healthcare systems in even the most well-resourced and robust societies of the world threatened to come apart at the seams, and images of overwhelmed and traumatised healthcare workers were streamed to audiences daily, from every corner of the globe, as death tolls soared, and people across cultures, nationalities, age groups and vulnerabilities succumbed.

The cause of this upheaval? A tiny, microscopic, unpredictable, airborne virus which has, over a period of 12 months, brought the entire world virtually to its knees and stopped us all in our tracks.

SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus behind the disease Covid-19, has, to date infected over 113 million people around the world, and killed over 2.5-million. South Africa had recorded 1 512 225 million cases of Covid-19, and 49 941 deaths, as at 28 February 2021.

Exhausting and relentless

Words like unprecedented, exhausting, relentless, chaotic and deadly have filled our consciousness, and perhaps none have taken root more strongly than the word pandemic itself, the definition of which is an occurrence of a disease that affects many people across a whole country or the whole world. Originating from the Greek words “pan” meaning all, and “demos” meaning the people or population, a pandemic therefore affects (nearly) all of the people.

Which brings us to the other pandemic, of which we have heard and seen far too much during a year deluged by unimaginable acts of greed, self-enrichment, and sheer lack of humanity. This is the pandemic of corruption.

I would like to quote two world leaders who have dominated our screens and airwaves over this past year on this vexing subject.

The first, World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has been famously quoted at a media briefing in Geneva in late August 2020:

“Any type of corruption is unacceptable,” said Ghebreyesus.

“However, corruption related to personal protective equipment (PPE), for me it’s actually murder. If health workers work without PPE, we’re risking their lives and the lives of the people they serve. It is murder and it has to stop.”

This was in response to a question about alleged Covid-19 PPE corruption in South Africa involving tender fraud worth billions. These corruption scandals catapulted the country into the global spotlight, for all the wrong reasons. 

Barely a month later, UN Secretary General António Guterres echoed those words from Tedros in a YouTube video in October 2020, addressing the topic of corruption in the context of Covid-19:

“Corruption is criminal, immoral and the ultimate betrayal of public trust. It is even more damaging in times of crisis – as the world is experiencing now with the Covid-19 pandemic.”

These admonishments could have been tailor-made for us here in South Africa, if one reviews the unspeakable levels of corruption that have mushroomed at a time of our highest vulnerability.

I have previously expressed cautious optimism about some of the changes that had taken place during the previous year: new leadership in the country’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), and its return to power in the May 2019 general elections, although with a significantly reduced majority.

Its mandate was, finally, to tackle head-on the corruption that had plagued the party and the country for so long. The dangers were still there, and the reality of uneasy bedfellows in a party riven by internal squabbles and differences in values, filtered outwards. But there were signs that treatment would and could be doled out to halt the spread of corruption, if not eliminate it entirely.

Following the years of state capture and the brazen collusion between self-serving business and government players, it seemed as though the country was ready for the new broom that would sweep away the toxic culture of corruption. Measures seemed to be in place for those found to be manifestly corrupt, lacking in integrity or honesty, and unfit to hold office, to finally face the consequences of their actions and be answerable to the people, as previously hollowed out criminal justice institutions began to rally once again. The public were on the brink of a giant exhalation, with the promise that heads would roll. Enter Covid-19.

Curtain ripped away

It ripped away the curtain, exposing the stark reality of South African society – gross inequality that determines who has access to quality healthcare, food, education, employment, benefits, safety and security, never mind in an emergency situation. The declaration of a state of disaster, and the accompanying hard lockdown that formed part of the country’s first response to the devastating virus, even as it was intended to protect and isolate the population from a common enemy, also dealt a devastating blow to people’s ability to keep body and soul together.

The disaster regulations necessitated a range of economic stimulus packages designed to provide a safety net to the most vulnerable, and to put in place emergency procurement measures to ensure that healthcare and essential workers, as well as their patients, would have what they need in a medical emergency.

It was inconceivable that anyone with an ounce of humanity would see these desperate measures as an opportunity for looting. And yet they did. Reports began to emerge of inflated prices and underhand deals between government officials and the private sector to provide medical equipment, or price gouging in the supply of life-saving PPEs. Shockingly, food aid parcels intended for the poor were also sold or diverted. While our country, our economy and people’s lives were being ravaged by a serious pandemic, these things were happening against a backdrop of power abuse by law enforcement officials who applied brute force to ordinary people trying to navigate an uncertain and altered world.

All across the nation people are wondering how we got to this point, how our society became so morally bankrupt and corrupt, so cruel and avaricious, as to seize upon the moment – this kind of moment! – to profit, steal food out of the mouths of our own people, and risk the lives of those in the frontline. The answer is corruption. 

We need more of a sustained and unrelenting activism, and a determination not to let up. We need, collectively, to dig deep into the depths of our humanity, to rediscover that energy and zeal that once successfully vanquished the unjust, the immoral, the inhumane and the criminal. If ever there was a time for a reckoning, it is now. We must rank these acts of treason – for that is what they are – alongside other atrocities that have long been outlawed on our statute books, and have no place in our democracy.

We can learn from the lessons and the victories of past revolutions, not just our own, but those from around the world, to usher in a new order. But this revolution must be of our own making, defined and refined by our new circumstances and a world badly in need of a shake-up. We can no longer tolerate what is happening before our eyes, in our own country.

Breach of the Constitution

We cannot watch while people facing serious allegations of corruption, not only in relation to cases of Covid-19, but also in matters emerging at the Zondo Commission, refuse to fall on their swords. We have seen a treasonous breach of the Constitution, the very underpinning of our democracy. We have witnessed an astounding defiance of the Constitutional Court, the final arbiter on matters legal in the land, and of structures set up to defend its principles.

Can we shift the national conscience and take on those in positions of power who treat us with disdain, and yet continue to hold public office, even representing us and our interests in Parliament? I think we must. We have done it before and, confronted by a not-dissimilar flagrant disregard and disrespect for the interests of the people, we must do it now.

What this past year has shown us is how appallingly the people of this country have been treated, disregarded and disrespected. If Covid-19 caught us unprepared, what initial failures there may have been may, perhaps, be forgiven. With the previous comparable pandemic, the Spanish influenza, having occurred more than a century ago, we lacked requisite experience.

But what will be insufferable is that the planned vaccination programme that we are told will protect and help us to build herd immunity, should be exposed to any semblance of theft. Society has to be vigilant and, wherever possible, prevent this from happening and act ruthlessly should there be any instance of corruption.

– Mavuso Msimang is board chairperson of Corruption Watch.