Passivity over corruption imperils our constitution
Mamhela Ramphele: The level of corruption and mismanagement in public life reflect a dangerous tendency towards a culture of impunity.
The recent launch by the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac), of a campaign for an independent anti-corruption agency, is an invitation to SA citizens to commit to halting this dangerous tendency.
Appropriately, the campaign began the week before the celebration of Human Rights Day. A culture of impunity for those abusing power and profiting from corruption is the antithesis of conditions that promote human rights.
Various commentators suggest that South Africa is only following the usual post-colonial trajectory of former liberators abusing their power to enrich themselves and those close to them.
There are unfortunately enough examples of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement of public resources to support this view.
The auditor-general, the Independent Complaints Directorate of the SA Police and the launch of a civil service anti-corruption unit by the Department of Public Service and Administration, all point to ineffective mechanisms for the enforcement of accountability.
But there is nothing inevitable about this slide into impunity. The independent mechanisms to promote integrity and strengthen our democracy are alive and well.
The public protector's recent fearless report about wrongdoing in the procurement of premises for police headquarters by the commissioner of police is a case in point. The Constitutional Court ruling that the Hawks were not independent enough - in terms of constitution requirements - to investigate wrongdoing without fear or favour to promote integrity in public service, is another.
The case for an independent anti-corruption agency is a strong one.
The proposed agency would have a triple mandate: public education; enforcement and prevention. The success of this agency would depend on the level of accountability to both parliament and civil society; the independence of the directorate and board appointed through a transparent public participation process; and adequate resources to discharge its mandate.
The culture of impunity is made possible by passive, uninformed citizens who tend to regard corrupt practices as normal to the business of governance. This tolerance is based on their experiences under non-democratic rule, and a sense of loyalty to those in power.
This loyalty is fuelled by disinformation by some of those in power, that reporting wrongdoing is a betrayal of those who sacrificed for our freedom.
Citizens are also made to believe that wrongdoing is necessary to right the wrongs of the apartheid past.
Enforcement is also severely constrained by public officials placing loyalty to their comrades above defending the constitution.
Take the case of Bosasa, the service provider of the Department of Correctional Services, which was investigated by the Special Investigating Unit. Taxpayers have every right to demand that the recommendations of the 2009 comprehensive report into the procurement of these services, be followed.
Our disengaged attitude as citizens and taxpayers promotes this culture of a lack of accountability, which fuels impunity.
Prevention requires the promotion of a culture aligned to the values of our constitution, which insists on equality before the law, respect for human dignity and the progressive realisation of socioeconomic rights.
These values are violated every day by public servants who abuse national resources which are supposed to address the basic needs of the poor.
Even more disconcerting is the failure of political leaders and those in authority to establish cultures in every tier of government to promote our founding values.
Seen from all perspectives then, I come to the unfortunate conclusion that the culture of impunity is fuelled by the sense of entitlement of those in power, who seem to believe society owes them a debt of gratitude for the freedom we enjoy. This conclusion is supported by the series of public scandals for which no one has been held accountable.
First, the arms deal continues to fester, despite evidence that, at the very least, a judicial commission of inquiry needs to investigate this matter.
Second, the Travelgate scandal saw those involved in defrauding the taxpayer simply being slapped on the wrist.
The abuse of travel allowances occurred in a parliament in which MPs are well looked after in terms of salaries and benefits.
Third, the open fronting by the ANC of black economic empowerment under the aegis of Chancellor House violates a central pillar of the constitution: equality under the law.
The ANC, at its landmark 2007 Polokwane conference, resolved to promote greater transparency in the funding of political parties.
But the voices within the ANC supporting the unwinding of the deals involved, including the lucrative Hitachi deal to build a boiler at Eskom's Medupi Power Plant, have been silenced.
No progress has been made - as was admitted by the chairman of the ANC Ethics Committee, Professor Ben Turok.
Fronting in businesses involving state-owned enterprises such as Eskom, gives the ruling party an unfair advantage over opposition parties.
This is a serious threat to democracy. Opposition parties have little chance of competing with an incumbent party that has deep pockets courtesy of the South African taxpayer.
Undermining political competition erodes the very foundations of our multiparty democracy.
In addition, the participation of the governing party in fronting BEE deals undermines its capacity to regulate and hold other fronting entities and persons accountable.
Good governance is seriously undermined by the failure to demonstrate intolerance for corruption. It lays the foundations for impunity - and corruption in the private sector cannot be addressed adequately by a government which is compromised by being seen to be involved in questionable deals.
Nor can the work of transforming the inherently corrupt apartheid culture be accomplished by a government which has been compromised.
South African citizens have a responsibility to acknowledge this elephant in the room and deal with it before it harms our democracy irreparably.
Let us campaign for the independent anti-corruption agency - as proposed by the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution.
It will give South Africans the platform from which to educate themselves, enforce the law and prevent corruption in their midst. We dare not fail future generations.
Ramphele, who is a business-woman, is writing in her capacity as a concerned private citizen