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Lifestyle audits, human rights violations waiting to happen


Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few bestselling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and adviser to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.

As I watched the US debate airport security versus civil liberties these holidays, I wondered if, in South Africa’s fight against corruption, it is possible we are promoting the violation of human rights.

You know, the kind that sees someone being strip-searched by the police just because he’s a black male. Is it possible our society is so against the corruption cancer growing in government, that the violation of the rights of government officials has become permissible? Really, think about what these “lifestyle audits” mean.

In America over the festive season, many citizens at airports refused to be strip-searched by machines in the name of fighting terrorism. This, they felt, was a gross violation of their civil liberties. There are those Americans, of course – I guess,  probably the same ones who support the war in Afghanistan – who were willing to submit to the full-body scanner which showed images that see through clothing in search of bombs and other weapons.

So in South Africa, led by Zwelinzima Vavi, the media and some in business have been calling for “lifestyle audits” to curb the scourge of government corruption. Explained by Business Unity SA president, Futhi Ntoba, “Lifestyle audits to determine the origin of wealth must be done in the government in order to win the fight against corruption in SA.”

So I’m guessing what these audits mean is government officials will have to allow someone to scrutinise their bank accounts, their assets, and, in some instances, going into their homes to see what sort of furniture they have, what kind of cars they drive and so on.  This would be matched against their salaries and other wealth. Whatever discrepancies exist would probably lead to suspicion of corruption, and they may have to explain where the extra money or wealth comes from.

Two problems: How is this different from being strip-searched at some street corner by the police just because you are a black male? Second, how far will the search for the origin of wealth go? If someone says, “The wealth was bequeathed to me by my dear mother or my late husband”, will we stop there and say, “Oh thank you, that’s fine”. Or will we be interested in finding out how grand mamma or hubby accumulated the wealth too? For those who have spouses, will the spouse also have to submit to an audit or explain the source of their wealth?

Whatever the justification, I can’t imagine it would be okay to raid someone’s home and assets just because they work for the government. Certainly, just because some are government officials does not make them prone to corruption or open to the violation of their right to privacy anymore than they are to crime just because they are black. It’s true that many government officials are corrupt. It is also true that many black people commit crime. But this has never made us comfortable strip-searching blacks who have rights under the Constitution not to be subjected to arbitrary and inhumane treatment, no matter how desperate we are to fight crime.

So some may argue that if government officials have nothing to hide and have committed no crime, then they would have no problem submitting to a lifestyle audit.

I don’t quite know why the Constitution allowed us the “the right to privacy”, but I can only guess it had something to do with the realisation that actually we do have things we’d like to hide from the public. That there are things we’d like to keep private. That’s why police are not allowed to go into my house without reasonable cause and start searching, even though I have absolutely nothing to hide.

As a friend pointed out, how far will we go? If we don’t succeed in combating corruption with the strip-searches, what other measures, in contravention to the Constitution and basic human rights, will we take? When will we know that we have gone so far we can no longer call ourselves a Constitutional democracy?

Corruption is probably the single most serious impediment to improving the lives of ordinary South Africans, and I for one support the fight against it. But we are a democratic and Constitutional state; we cannot allow human rights violations, no matter how honourable our motives. That simply exposes us to a snowball of wrongs and utter anarchy, which the Constitutional rights we have sought to prevent.

Vavi and his followers may be entering very dangerous grounds where morality, human rights violations, and dare I say, racism are just some of the land mines. DM


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