Corruption Watch executive director David LewisBy David Lewis

A diverse grouping of civil society organisations has called on the public to protest against escalating corruption by joining a picket in front of Parliament on 7 August and a march on the Union Buildings on 19 August. There are three questions that might be addressed to those calling on the public to join these protests.

First, with all that South Africans have to be concerned about, why march against corruption? Why not unemployment? Or inequality? Or the deterioration of our public health and public education systems?

While the decision to call for public protest action against corruption doesn’t suggest a ranking of grievances, corruption is widely perceived to be a major contributor to each of these other major social ills. Investment is deterred and employment growth compromised by the uncertainty generated by widespread corruption; because corruption is the abuse of public resources for private gain, it is the most disadvantaged communities who are hardest hit; rampant corruption in public health and education is widely held to be a major underpinning of the rapidly declining quality of those services.

The truth is that corruption represents a brazen middle finger to key elements of our constitutional democracy. We chose the form of governance embodied in the Constitution not only because it represented a morally superior arrangement to apartheid, but precisely because, in so doing, it gave voice to the poor, because it limited the ability of the politically and economically powerful to ignore the wishes of the marginalised. Corruption trashes this key pillar of the democratic order. It is the domination of the toxic combination of money and state and political power over public policies, practices and institutions.

Second, why picket Parliament and march to the Union Buildings, as corruption implicates all sectors of society? Why not march to the offices of one of our leading business associations? We march to the Union Buildings because those who occupy the seat of government do so only because we trusted them to take care of our public resource.

As for Parliament, it is supposed to be the citadel of democracy, the arena in which expression is given to the voice of the people. But whenever issues of corruption surface, it conducts itself as though it were a cat’s paw of the executive.

Taking our grievances to the heart of the executive is wholly appropriate, the more so when a growing body of public opinion believes that a core element of our corruption problem is to be found in the impunity accorded to leading members of the executive itself.

We would like the march to be joined by members of the ruling party and members of the executive. It is, after all, the executive that is charged with administering our anti-corruption laws. It is for their individual consciences to determine where they stand on this issue. But if principle and conscience do not persuade them to stand with the people, then surely the fact that their outrage is beginning to affect the unity and fortunes of their party, and, by extension, their own career prospects, should suffice.

Which leads to our third question: What can be achieved? That this question should have to be asked at all is cause for concern. It betokens a lack of faith in our democracy. The battle against corruption will be lost when those responsible succeed in persuading the public that they cannot be stopped.

The fact is that we are a democracy, however imperfect. It is our duty to use those rights that make us a democracy to put a stop to the looting and abuses of the corrupt. The mechanism whereby change happens in a democracy is to speak out. And if nobody listens, then to speak louder.

Recall the words of the philosopher: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” On 7 and 19 August, the ball will be in the court of the good men and women. Let’s hit it with all we have.

• Lewis is executive director of Corruption Watch.

• This article was first published in Business Day.