South Africa

Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight! Civil society call to action against corruption

By Ranjeni Munusamy 17 June 2015

It started off as a tweet from Zwelinzima Vavi, asking if people would be willing to march to Union Buildings in support of the Public Protector. Now eight trade unions and 29 civil society organisations have come together to build an alliance against corruption and for social justice. This campaign is to culminate in a mass march in Pretoria in August against Nkandla, e-tolls, golden handshakes, Eskom, looting of the state coffers, lack of accountability and public officials still holding positions after being implicated in corruption – basically everything South Africans complain about. It’s a mass call to action by civil society against corruption, and while it is an apolitical initiative, who knows what this can grow into? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

There is a lot that happens daily in South Africa that provokes anger and despondency. The latest is the fiasco over Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, with the South African government flouting a high court order prohibiting his departure from the country. So far government has not bothered to provide South Africans with an explanation as to why it chose to act in contempt of court and undermine the rule of law, saying only that it would enquire into the matter. Adding to the furore are reports that South African peacekeepers in Darfur were surrounded by Sudanese troops until Al-Bashir took off from Pretoria.

President Jacob Zuma and the South African government have a lot to answer for on this matter but, as with every other controversy, there is very little the South African public can do to ensure accountability. The only place Zuma and members of Cabinet are compelled to answer questions are in Parliament. If they choose not to answer or to laugh off the questions, as the president did recently on Nkandla, people of this country have to simply accept it.

Not so, says former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who is one of the leaders of a civil society coalition mobilising against corruption. At a media briefing on Tuesday to announce the initiative, Vavi said Zuma “misused the Presidency’s budget vote in Parliament to laugh off the issue of Nkandla”. “He tried to make fools of the opposition parties and civil society organisations that have expressed outrage [at] the abuse of public funds and power,” Vavi said, reading the coalition’s statement.

“On May 28, just a day later, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko released his ‘report’ into what amount the president should repay of R246 million of public funds spent on his residence in Nkandla. His report sought to make fools of the whole nation.”

Nhleko’s report certainly did seem to be a tipping point, perhaps because of the utter ridiculousness of trying to cover up the security upgrades in retrospect and also because it effectively rubbished Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s investigation on Nkandla. Following the release of Nhleko’s report, Vavi asked on Twitter whether people would support a mass march to defend the Office of the Public Protector. The overwhelming response in favour provoked a mass civil society campaign against corruption.

Eight trade unions and 29 civil society organisations met last week and resolved to build an alliance against corruption and for social justice. They plan to hold pickets to coincide with Nhleko’s report being presented to the National Assembly. The showstopper of the campaign is a mass march to the Union Buildings on 19 August to demonstrate that South Africans have reached breaking point on the issue of corruption.

Vavi said corruption was now “endemic in the Office of the President, infects parts of the Cabinet and spreads throughout government, businesses, trade unions and NGOs”.

“Corruption denialism by the ANC leadership is permitting the diversion of billions of rands away from the delivery of public services to the poor and into hands of the elite.”

What makes this coalition relevant? It pulls together big personalities, big organisations and pressure groups that have public presence and experience with mass mobilisation.

Vavi is obviously the most recognisable figure with mass appeal, having led South Africa’s biggest trade union federation for 17 years and has had running battles with successive administrations in democratic South Africa. He fought the Mandela government on Gear, the macroeconomic strategy at the time, butted heads with Thabo Mbeki on Aids denialism, Zimbabwe and the abuse of state organs, and got himself kicked out of Cosatu for, amongst other things, being a thorn in Zuma’s side on corruption and wastage of state funds.

Section27 has been a prominent campaigner in education and health care, including leading the charge on government’s failure to deliver textbooks in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa) is at the forefront of the campaign against e-tolling and has refused to let up pressure on the issue.

Metalworkers union Numsa and its band of rebel Cosatu unions have also joined the party, as has the United Front, which is exploring the formation of a new leftist political organisation. Other organisations leading the anti-corruption coalition are Equal Education, Awethu and the Unemployment Secretariat.

So is there a broader agenda to the coalition, other than demonstrating society’s refusal to tolerate grand scale corruption?

Vavi says the only political objective is to defeat corruption, as the common problem for all the organisations involved was how it was endemic in every sector of society. He said they decided not to invite political parties to join the march but to call on all South Africans who are “gatvol” to participate.

Vavi said there were people in Cabinet and the ANC national executive committee that were opposed to e-tolls and to the spending on Nkandla. He said these people should have the courage to speak out and say “Not in my name.”.

Vavi said the coalition had deliberately chosen the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising to announce the initiative to create a symbolic linkage to the courage of the 1976 youth. “We make a call to brave men and women who stood against brutal system of apartheid to again stand up against corruption.”

Section27’s Mark Heywood said the purpose of the march was to empower society to act against corruption. “Everybody is talking about it and complaining about corruption. Stand up now and do something. We must make corruption politically untenable,” Heywood said. After the march, every person should feel empowered to tackle corruption where they see it, he said.

Heywood said the coalition had singled out the ANC in particular because the organisation protected people in its leadership who are corrupt. He cited the examples of former Gauteng Health MEC Brian Hlongwa, now chief whip of the ANC in the provincial legislature, KwaZulu-Natal Education MEC Peggy Nkonyeni and Free State Health MEC Benny Malakoane, all of whom faced allegations of corruption but remain in high ranking positions.

Heywood said the coalition’s steering committee would also approach business to join the march and be seen to be visible partners against corruption. He said business had remained “conveniently silent” on the issue of corruption.

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said civil society could not go on “reading newspapers” and doing nothing about spiralling crisis in the country. He said Numsa was particularly concerned about load shedding and its impact on small and medium businesses while CEOs like Brian Molefe were being “recycled” from Transnet to Eskom. He said some issues could not be addressed just through marches but had to be challenged in court.

“What do we do when government does not listen? People voted against e-tolls but they are still in operation. It is high time we must take action and go all out to mobilise against e-tolls,” Jim said.

Coordinator of the United Front Dinga Sikwebu said another issue of concern was the amount of money spent on “golden handshakes” to make senior officials in the public service and parastals “quietly go away”. “This is part of the corruption denialism,” Sikwebu said.

Outa’s Oya Gumede said the aim of the march was not to form a new trade union federation or political party. She said it was intended to be inclusive of all sections of society. All the organisations involved had a mutual responsibility to tackle corruption, she said.

As South Africa lurches from crisis to crisis, the constant refrain in society is “What can we do?” This coalition of prominent South Africans and civil society organisations has taken a step towards answering that question. Of course the initiative can fizzle out if it becomes just one of thousands of marches every year protesting government failures. Or it can be a massive and decisive demonstration of people power against pervasive and debilitating corruption.

That is entirely dependent on whether South Africans want to just continue complaining or are willing to act. On 19 August we will find out exactly which way it will be. DM

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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