South Africa

Fighting graft with faith: Western Cape religious leaders talk corruption

By Osiame Molefe 14 June 2012

Corruption is South Africa's number one pre-occupation. Everyone knows it exists, somewhere out there, yet few admit to being part of the system of corruption. Could faith, which South Africans have in spades, provide a way to dealing honestly with this? Religious leaders who met on Wednesday to discuss corruption seemed to think so. OSIAME MOLEFE captured their discussion.

Census data and other studies have been clear in finding that the majority of South Africans subscribe to some religious or spiritual belief. Common among the beliefs with the most adherents – Christianity, African traditional beliefs, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – is the notion of moral accountability, either to higher powers or others within society.

It was with this accountability in mind that Western Cape religious leaders representing most major faiths met with members of the community, civil society and other organisations on Wednesday to discuss corruption and the role of faith in combating it. 

Opening the summit, archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba said faith-based communities should be at the forefront of fighting corruption, not only because corruption hurts the nation, but because corruption is immoral, sinful and, by its very nature, always wrong. Makgoba said corruption goes against the precepts that underpin faith.

“We, who are leaders of the faith communities, must stand up and declare the opposition to corruption loud and clear. We must also educate our own people to take this stand with us. If all our people refused to become involved in corruption or in offering and taking bribes, if we speak up and say no loud and clear, then we change how our country works,” he said.

Throughout history, particularly on the African continent, religion has had a prickly, often contradictory, relationship with morality. Many times, religion has been used piously to oppress, subjugate and demean. One of Mokgoba’s predecessors, archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, is known for this quote on the usefulness of religion to colonialists: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Even in modern times on the continent, religion continues to be a source for oppression, bigotry and, particularly in Nigeria, conflict.

So given this history, and our present circumstances, it might be tempting to say that religion has no place in progressive discussions on ethical behaviour and morality. Nonetheless, short of trading bigotry for intolerance, people’s faiths cannot be wished away and religion will continue to play a defining role in their actions and life choices, which might make it useful in fighting a behaviour-driven problem like corruption.

Affirming this, Themba Mthhetwa, CEO of the Office of the Public Protector, said he was relieved that religious leaders were thinking and talking about their role in combating the “twin evils” of maladministration and corruption, given the effects these have on the lives of the poor and vulnerable. 

Mthethwa assured those present that corruption, contrary to how it might at times be presented, is not endemic to South Africa – it’s a global issue. He added that it’s also not specific to the public sector alone and lamented that the private sector fell outside the scope of his office’s mandate because the private sector was often complicit in public sector corruption.

Hennie van Vuuren from the Institute of Security Studies added that corruption was not a post-1994 phenomenon and that the apartheid government just had better mechanisms by which to keep it out of sight. 

“We all recognised the brutal and repressive nature of apartheid,” Van Vuuren said, “but we haven’t spent much time (looking at) the impact of the crimes and system of apartheid on the economic system and fabric of society.” 

Van Vuuren said apartheid entrenched a culture of corruption, which was not discussed during the transition because it was understood there were vested interests that would be harmed in looking too closely at economic crimes under apartheid. So not only was the misappropriated and expatriated wealth under apartheid never properly dealt with, it left behind a quiet legacy of corruption that continued to spread and co-opt.

This means that when we talk about uprooting corruption, we must look at its historical context and its systemic nature, he said.

Giving her perspective of corruption as an activist with the Social Justice Coalition and a resident of Khayelitsha, which has been rocked by vigilante necklacings, Angy Peters painted a picture of a community so pervaded by corruption that a feeling of helplessness, maybe even anomie, has set in.

“It’s very difficult to fight corruption because at the national, provincial, city and district levels, there is corruption. How can you (the government) fight corruption if you are corrupt? When police turn away cases, where do you go to report? There is nothing we can do. It’s like we’re living in the cell of hell,” Peters said.

Most of the religious leaders present on Wednesday agreed that religion is not incorruptible. Imam Dr Rashid Omar, for example, warned that religious institutions should not become apologists for political authorities as the Dutch Reform Church did under apartheid.

Others, like pastors Xola Skhosana and Alan Storey, took it further by saying that religion and religious institutions can be seen as complicit in corruption, if you were to provide a complete enough definition of corruption.

“In my faith, when you have more than one chair, they say ‘God has blessed you’,” Storey said. He used chairs as a metaphor for material wealth and said our society, including laws, religion and social norms, has been structured to criminalise and vilify those who live without for the protection of those who live in bounty. This, he said, is corrupt and goes against what faith actually teaches: sharing and the rejection of selfish hoarding. 

Storey asked whether religious leaders, including himself, were prepared to broaden the definition of corruption in this way, because it would mean a personal price had to be paid.

Skhosana questioned whether the tenets of South Africa’s democracy and the country’s political systems were not inherently corrupt because their existence and survival depended on sacrificing huge numbers of  people by leaving them on the fringes of society with the promise that, as we democratise, they will be brought in.

Like Storey, Skhosana challenged his fellow religious leaders to expand their definition of corruption in order to respond to it from how the beliefs that intersect their faiths prescribed.

The religious leaders concluded that silence was not an option. And while the faiths they lead might not have done so in the past, they agreed that to combat corruption, they must practise what they preach. DM


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