Corruption Watch’s mission is to encourage and enable public participation in combating corruption, said the organisation’s executive director David Lewis. He was speaking at a recent panel discussion at the Wits Business School, where the role of business in fighting corruption in South Africa came under the spotlight,
The discussion was led by Lewis, with participation from Shell SA chairperson Bonang Mohale, Aka Capital chairperson Dr Reuel Khoza, and Isaac Shongwe, founder of Letsema Holdings. Prof Adam Habib, the Wits vice-chancellor, was moderator.
Encouraging business to fight corruption was not a popular position to take up, said Lewis, because business is viewed not only as a big beneficiary of corruption but also as a perpetrator of at least as serious a degree of corruption as the “iconic corrupt public servant”.
In African countries, including South Africa, business executives were viewed as the second most corrupt group after police, he said, referring to the Transparency International/Afrobarometer report People and Corruption: Africa Survey 2015, part of the Global Corruption Barometer.
“When the public no longer trust those who are supposed to guard their savings or bake their bread, and they don’t trust their public servants or police members, the whole of society has a real problem. We need to work closely with business,” Lewis said. “It’s not my view that business is inherently corrupt, but there is no doubt that it is part of the problem, and could become part of the solution.”
He said a transition from being a good corporate citizen to an active one is possible, and necessary. “Two of the panellists – Reuel Khoza and Bonang Mohale – are famous for actually being willing to publicly express their anxiety and distaste for corruption in South Africa.”
“If we really want to tackle corruption, we have to grapple with the issues of our time, and ask some difficult questions of ourselves,” said Habib.
The problem is not that we don’t know what to do, or how to do it. “The ANC today has more documents on how to deal with corruption than it had 20 years ago, but it’s got a bigger problem with corruption. Today’s society has more legislation about corruption than it had 20 years ago, and yet the levels of corruption are higher than they were two decades ago. The same applies to business.” This is not an exclusively South African problem, Habib said.
“There are businesspeople who thrive on wanting to access political largesse,” said Khoza. “You can’t have corruption unless you have a corruptee and a corruptor.” The policeman has got to be internal, he said, meaning that people have to take personal responsibility for ethical business conduct.
“The problem with business today is that it has chosen to be silent,” said Mohale. “Corruption affects the poor disproportionately, and it increases the costs of doing business. Eventually the quality of service diminishes, or the service is not even delivered.”
Shongwe challenged the room to a show of hands indicating a personal experience of corruption in business – the majority of attendees raised their hands. “If you pay that first bribe,” he said, “from that moment your credibility is gone. I had the courage to say no.”
Watch extracts from the discussion here: