South Africa is experiencing an awakening of its civil society akin to the 1970s, when unions started to organise against an unjust political regime. This time it is against corruption and to protect a fragile democracy. The launch of Corruption Watch at the start of this year came as a welcome relief to many.

Funded principally by donations from charitable foundations, Corruption Watch was initiated as a non profit organisation by Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) office-bearers, who were receiving an increasing number of complaints about corruption from its members and the public.

Its board of directors includes Bobby Godsell, a member of the National Planning Commission and chairman of Business Leadership SA; Adila Hassim, a founding member of Corruption Watch; David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch and former chairman of the Competition Tribunal; and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

Lewis was instrumental in the implementation of the Competition Act that changed the competitive culture of corporate South Africa. After chairing the tribunal for a decade, he was appointed as an extraordinary professor at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. Before that, he spent 15 years in trade unions and was a special adviser to the minister of labour between 1994 and 1996. He became involved in Corruption Watch because this is what he really loves to do.

"Advocacy is as important as the prosecution," he says. "We are set up to amplify a voice. People should realise they are not alone. This is a platform from where they can talk to people in power. The many good people in the government are starting to realise that, even with a positive initiative, the first question many ask is: who will line their pockets with this? It is eroding trust and is not a situation a democracy can afford forever."

The reaction to the launch of Corruption Watch has been a humbling experience, he says.

"There is a huge groundswell of people who are really outraged, and if the government thinks this is a suburban preoccupation, they really are deluding themselves. It is not something the chattering classes have to deal with that often, but when you are in a small or medium-sized town it absolutely slaps you in the face, either in the form of services you do not get, or in terms of the incredible visibility of those who are getting rich a little too quickly."

The most surprising development in South Africa over the past 20 years has been the extent to which independent civil society organisations were weakened: "I think that happened for a variety of reasons. The new government absorbed an enormous amount of skills. People also sat back a bit and said we now have a decent government, it is now our turn to rest and the government’s turn to look after us. The lesson is that the government is only as good as its citizens are demanding of it to be. So, I think there is capacity for all of us to wake up again. Our history is not so distant that we are not practised in doing that."

He is realistic about this awakening process and hesitates before explaining, trying not to step on political toes.

"Our political situation does not lend itself immediately to electoral solutions to the problem. But, increasingly it does, not because I think the African National Congress is becoming less powerful or that I want it or do not want it to become so, but because they see enough schisms in their own ranks," he says.

People want to see results when they talk, demonstrate, litigate and shout about widespread and systemic corruption — "In a sense it is to have enough faith that at some stage people, who should earn the trust of those who elected them into power, will realise they are earning a comfortable salary and do not need to supplement it with criminal conduct that may get them to lo se their freedom."

Everybody is talking about the huge infrastructure contracts, especially the energy contracts and tenders that are going to be issued. In monetary terms it dwarfs the arms deal. South Africans, he says, are keenly aware of tenders and contracts that have landed in fertile corruption fields.

"It does remind me of the early days of the competition authorities, where people are so confident of the protection that they have that they make the most ludicrous mistakes."

One example is of a town in KwaZulu-Natal, where a new road was built. A man set up a company to build the road, although he happened to be the mayor of the town and the company was run by his 18-year-old son. "This is a stupid thing to do. It’s an expression of his confidence that he is untouchable. You have to somehow persuade him that he is not untouchable ."

Lewis has some scepticism and even outright cynicism about what can be achieved.

"We will have to be very selective of the cases we take on, just as the police and the public protector take on a fraction of the cases reported to them.

"As important as it is to have scalps and people in jail, we will need political will and social resolution on this." Corruption Watch is also deeply concerned about the level of corruption in the corporate sphere: "I think they are at the level of grand corruption." He says the competitive temperature in the country forces people to be pragmatic and hard-nosed to meet targets. This temperature creates room for unethical behaviour. The thinking is that if all one’s competitors are doing it, you cannot run the risk of not doing it too.

Lewis wants to see a future in which companies are forced to pay retribution for wrongdoing. He refers to Siemens AG, which was involved in corrupt activities and reached a settlement at the end of 2009 with the World Bank. The company set up an anticorruption fund worth $100m that will be distributed, over 15 years, to nonprofit organisations worldwide (such as Corruption Watch) that promote business integrity and fight corruption.

"Our link with Cosatu obliges us to take corruption matters in business seriously. We are, and should be, under pressure to show that we are not only aimed at corruption in the public sector, but that it is also about the interaction between the public and private sectors."

South Africans have a lot going for them, he says. The country still boasts a robust press, an independent judiciary and a good constitution. There are many countries that are a "million miles away" from having the institutions that may generate the challenges to corruption we already have. Although some of those institutions are, from time to time, under threat, he is not convinced they are under terminal threat yet.

"We should not take them for granted. We should count our blessings in that regard. Our history has shown we have people who are not willing to take huge injustices lying down."

This article originally appeared in Business Day on 21 May 2012.


Corruption Watch is a sign of the revival of 1970s-style civic campaigns, this time to protect our democracy, writes Amanda Visser in Business Day.