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Corruption in way of social justice
Author: Chris Jones
Published: 18/02/2021

World Day of Social Justice will be celebrated on Saturday (20 February). In an opinion piece for Daily Maverick (17 February), Dr Chris Jones (Unit for Moral Leadership) writes that we must root out corruption with all its tentacles to ensure social justice  ̶  the underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence among our people  ̶  becomes a reality.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Chris Jones*

In his book Peace and Prosperity in an Age of Incivility (2006), William Davis makes the point that balancing the values of liberty, order and equality helps to maximise peace and prosperity in a complex and globalised world. Equally important is the promotion of social justice which, according to the United Nations, “is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations". This is, among others, what we will be reflecting on this year when we commemorate World Day of Social Justice on 20 February.

I recently asked a colleague what she thinks the most disruptive factor for peaceful and prosperous coexistence among South Africans is at the moment. Without hesitation, she mentioned corruption. I was somewhat surprised by her answer because I reckoned that she, as an extremely compassionate person, would have said Covid-19. We know how devastating this pandemic is, the havoc it wrought and the major sense of uncertainty it still presents, especially in a developing country like ours.

As I pondered her answer, I came across an interesting survey of over 22 000 people [aged 16-74] conducted at the end of 2020. It tracked “public opinion on the most important social and political issues across 27 countries … drawing on 10 years of data to place the latest scores in context … [It] presents the top global concerns alongside whether people think things in their country are heading in the right or wrong direction".

The survey found that some 78% of South Africans think that our “country is [currently] on the wrong track", compared to the global average of 62%. And while the current pandemic remains the world's greatest worry, South Africans are more concerned about unemployment and corruption. A total of 62% of respondents (as in Italy) listed job losses as their main worry in 2021, and a further 62% (as in Hungary) considered corruption as a worrying issue. However, on a global scale, only 37% of respondents listed unemployment as their primary concern, with only 27% worried about corruption. 

Considering the devastating impact of Covid-19 on our country's already-beleaguered economy, this perhaps should not come as a surprise. The pandemic resulted in two million job losses during hard lockdown — with an unemployment rate rising to above 30% — and has also brought even more corruption, with high-ranking government officials implicated in collusion and bribery in the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

According to the survey, South Africans rank as one of the most worried nations in the world. Our grim outlook is ranked the second worst. Only respondents in Peru are more pessimistic. 

If one looks at the five top concerns worldwide, namely Covid-19, unemployment, poverty and social inequality, financial and political corruption, and health care — which all have to do with social justice — South Africa sadly does not have a good track record at all in these respects. 

Although all five these concerns are of utmost importance for our country, I keep on thinking of what my esteemed colleague said about corruption. Because corruption not only effects health care negatively, she replied, but billions of corrupted Rands could be spent on poor and jobless people, on buying more vaccines for the almost 60 million South Africans, addressing the huge inequality between private and public health, and in combating crime and violence.

These thoughts took me back to what STIAS (Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study) fellow Tukumbi Lumumba-Kasongo of the Departments of Political Science and International Studies at Wells College said in his presentation at a seminar in August 2018.  He remarked that “corruption cannot be fully understood as a single issue. It is part of the whole. Many African states find themselves fighting something they can't fully define which is larger than themselves and with which the system collaborates".

What is clear to Lumumba-Kasongo is that Africa loses billions annually in so-called “illicit financial flows" which effectively negates much of the development assistance received by the continent.

“Actions to eradicate corruption, to date, have been too insipid and timid", however, he believes that change in this regard is possible. Many African states are transforming themselves, through “judicial activism" that is rising and by “coming together with the rise in social movements".

But this is not enough. We also need, among others, laws, an independent legislature and judiciary, professional ethics, new codes of behaviour and strong democratic institutions.

Lumumba-Kasongo then made the very important and valid point that “society has to respond to corruption as a social development issue. Social justice is key. Anti-corruption efforts must address social justice".

Although South African residents are the second pessimistic among 27 countries according to the above survey, not everything is doom and gloom. Efforts are being made to fight corruption such as the dismissal of Gauteng MEC for Health Dr Bandile Masuku and the suspension of presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko.  But many more alleged criminals must still be brought to book and, if found guilty, they must be made to pay back the money and sent to jail.

However, it is important to remember the words of Lumumba-Kasongo that we need much more than suspending or even firing officials, because it only treats the symptoms and not the cause. His thoughts and proposals as cited above, could serve as an effective vaccine for the soul-destroying pandemic of corruption, fraud, and theft in South Africa and many other countries in the continent.

It's clear that we need strong political will, as well as public and private sector commitment to root out corruption with all its tentacles, in order to realise social justice, the underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence among our people.

*Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.