by Sabeehah Motala

Corruption has no age. As the voices speaking out against corruption grow, more and more young people are getting in touch with Corruption Watch to report on their experiences. What the data has shown is striking – evidence of corruption affecting young people in their most earnest endeavours. Young people are fighting an uphill battle trying to improve their lives through work opportunities and education. Unfortunately, corruption has penetrated the lives of youth too.

Youth feel the effects too

Unemployment is one of the major issues inhibiting development of South Africa’s young population. The youth unemployment rate reached an all-time high of 54.5% in the first quarter of 2016. Unfortunately, many young people experience corruption in trying to access programmes designed to curb youth unemployment. Reports collected by Corruption Watch demonstrate issues of lacking accountability and integrity in the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), SETA accredited training programmes and the National Youth Service.

In analysing the data, several problem areas can be identified:

  • Ghost workers, the spectral phenomenon of names on a payroll for workers which don’t exist;
  • Misuse of funds, where funds given for paying stipends are misappropriated and used alternatively;
  • Nepotism in selection processes, where people are chosen for job placements or benefits through their personal relationships rather than objectively;
  • Stipends not being paid, preventing people from supporting themselves and/or their families;
  • Training not properly conducted, meaning that participants are left without proper skills or certification, unable to find work after their time in the programme and;
  • Payments demanded in exchange for positions in these programmes.

These programmes are intended to create employment and skills training for those desperately in need. If administrated effectively, they have the potential to empower generations to pull themselves out of poverty. But unfortunately, they suffer from the rampant corruption within. At a recent event in Alexandra Township, Corruption Watch engaged with a representative from the EPWP, who informed us that there currently is no  reporting channel for these issues. Without a channel to collect information on areas of corruption these issues cannot be tackled and inefficiencies cannot be resolved.

But employment is not the only area in which young people are affected by corruption. Young people enrolled, or attempting to enrol in tertiary education face issues of corruption too. In accessing financial aid and even living space, many face the wall of corruption, which shuts them out of what should be a service which enables their access to education. National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) grants, in particular, have been highly affected by corruption. Reports collected by Corruption Watch highlight the following problem areas:

  • NSFAS funding not provided, despite applications having been confirmed;
  • Funding for NSFAS misused – NSFAS meal allowances unusable owing to illicit contracts;
  • Squandering of NSFAS funding;
  • Rent money not paid for those supposedly covered by NSFAS funding;
  • Bribes given in exchange for rooms in student accommodation.

Perhaps even more shockingly, students themselves, in particular members of student representative councils (SRCs) have been accused of partaking in corrupt activity, some even arrested for their participation. In reports to Corruption Watch, SRC members have been accused of misusing NSFAS funds, of being bribed to prevent them from assisting students with issues involving university staff, and even taking bribes in exchange for illicitly helping contractors. In November, news outlets reported that a member of the SRC at Tshwane University of Technology was arrested along with two other suspects, for having allegedly taken a bribe in exchange for arranging the renewal of a security company’s contract.

It is clear that corruption in the university space is rife, and has a very real impact on those who are attempting to access what should be legitimately available.

The youth struggle

What is interesting is that these reports of corruption come amidst a time when young people have become increasingly vocal about their financial struggles. Aside from the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters, who seem to appeal to many disillusioned young people, 2015 saw the inception of the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa. In addition to the surprise announcements of fee increases, young people are struggling for employment, education and even to find their place in this new South Africa.

Corruption ostensibly has the power to take advantage of the struggles of the young people. The immediate correlation between corruption and issues of young people is clear – direct prevention of access to support and self-development. But the indirect effects are less evident. It is frustrating for young people to witness grand-scale corruption and misuse of government money, when their own financial difficulties remain unaddressed. Student activist in the Fees Must Fall Movement, Rashaad Yusuf Dadoo, says: “Corruption plays a more direct role in #FMF [Fees Must Fall],” and states that “the argument of ‘not enough money’ by the ruling powers becomes insufficient when millions are lost to corruption by those people.” He adds: “The more corrupt the government, the more reason people have to resist.”

The lack of transparency does not end with poor financial disclosure. Now is the opportune moment for government, university management, students and other stakeholders to engage regarding the controversy of the 8% fee increase announced by the University of Cape Town and University of the Witwatersrand. Exams are completed, everyone is cooling off for the holidays, yet the silence is deafening. The air, when campuses resume in 2017, will be pregnant with tension. People are aware that the students will not take this lightly. They will not sit back and watch as their hard-fought battles are ignored, as their comrades face court appearances and marginalisation by the media.

Now is the time to be hosting talks with young people, while there are no classes to disrupt. Perhaps the onus lies on both ends of the spectrum, but surely we should look to our leaders to lead the discussion. The lack of transparency in decision making is a barrier towards reaching a mutual understanding, and the lack of willingness to involve students leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, giving the impression that “Young people, we do not take you seriously and we do not value your input”.

The lack of voices from civil society has, too, been lamentable in the 2016 Fees Must Fall events. Last year NGOs were vocal in their support and analysis. Legal observers were often found on the ground at some of the larger events, a welcoming source of protection for those participating in protests. Yet this year, though we saw many documented occurrences of police brutality and excessive use of force, they were ignored by many from whom a reaction was expected. Young people are increasingly feeling as if their pleas and strife are falling on deaf ears.

Fighting corruption begins with transparent, meaningful engagement. With the right support from respected platforms, movements such as the #FeesMustFall have the potential to address issues of integrity, and to forge a better South Africa with input from those who have a major interest in a brighter future.

Clean hands make for a clean society

An issue I have come across, certainly amongst some of my friends and other young people that I associate with, is the apathy through which corruption is viewed, in particular bribery. There seems to be a sense of complacency, that nothing can be done about corruption, especially as it’s being committed by the country’s top brass. And with that, comes the idea that because we cannot do anything about it, there’s nothing wrong with selfishly engaging in order to make life a little easier.

The problem is that we’ve given in to the idea that nothing can be done without a bribe: for example, getting through a road block, obtaining a driver’s license, passport renewal, border crossing etc. – the list is endless. For the most part, we know that these are not services that require payment, yet young people are still willing to give in.

Secondly, young people are a group that may be likely to commit offences such as driving under the influence of intoxicants, or possession of illegal substances. The possibility of “sorting it out” with a police officer reduces the fear of committing such a crime. Young people are emboldened by the idea that there is a solution to being caught for committing a crime.

This complacency needs to change. It is causing a generation of young people who lack integrity, both in terms of committing crimes and in terms of saying no to corruption. If the system was administered efficiently, if bribery was eradicated, perhaps young people would think twice before engaging in illegal activity, and rather respect the laws that are there in place to protect them.

Young people have a role to play

Young people are the future of society, and we want to live in one that is run with integrity, is efficient and addresses the needs of the people without wastefulness. We need to keep making our voices heard, speaking out against wrongdoing, engaging with leaders for meaningful change, and holding ourselves accountable too.

We are the generation with the energy to stand up to the establishment and its misuse of our funding. We are the generation with the guts to make sure our peers have clean hands and respect for the rule of law in all their dealings. We are the generation with the power to put an end to corruption in our lifetime.

• Artwork by Faith47