03 May 2022 | Story Prof Francis Petersen | Photo Sonia Small (Kaleidoscope Studios)
Prof Francis Petersen
Corruption currently presents the largest challenge to South Africa’s socio-economic development, writes Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State. 
Corruption currently presents the largest challenge to South Africa’s socio-economic development. For once, civil society and all political parties seem to agree that reform is urgently required in order to bolster the country’s vulnerable culture of respect for human rights and to boost confidence in its governance and economic prospects. What form that reform should take, is unfortunately neither simple nor evident. What is abundantly clear though, is that any reform is bound to fail if our youth is left out of the process, says Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

One only has to glance through the news headlines every once in a while to realise that South Africa is in deep trouble. Corruption seems to have infiltrated every nook and cranny of society, leaving hardly any sector or institution untouched.  

A History of Corruption

Although the scale of current corruption seems unprecedented, the phenomenon itself has been with us for a very long time. In South Africa, the colonial and apartheid eras had their fair share of it. The hope that democracy would herald a new era of pristine government was quickly thwarted, with the first major instance of grotesque public-sector corruption in the form of the multi-billion-dollar Arms Deal around 1999.

Former president Nelson Mandela said towards the end of his term: “Our hope for the future depends also on our resolution as a nation in dealing with the scourge of corruption. Success will require an acceptance that, in many respects, we are a sick society.”

His words came true when South Africa’s so-called ‘decade of corruption’ under former president Jacob Zuma (2009-2018) robbed taxpayers of staggering amounts. State capture losses are estimated at up to a third of the country’s GDP, dwarfing those of the Arms Deal.  The Zondo Commission’s fourth state capture report, detailing state capture at Eskom, Transnet, and the asbestos and housing scandals in the Free State, once again emphasised the devasting impact of corruption on the poor. 

Corruption in the private sector is, of course, equally rampant. South Africa’s state capture, for one, would not have been possible without the involvement of international auditing companies, banks, and estate agencies. And as Peter Hain, former British Labour Party MP and anti-apartheid activist, recently remarked: “Turn-a-blind-eye governments are also part of the scandal. Unless the UK, US, Chinese, Indian and UAE governments co-operate with each other, state capture will happen again, either in South Africa or elsewhere.”
In the 2021 annual report released by Corruption Watch, the non-profit organisation revealed that the bulk of corruption issues or other forms of misconduct investigated last year, stem from the public sector. The most prevalent forms of corruption identified were maladministration, procurement corruption, fraud, and misappropriation of resources. Then there is also dereliction of duty, bribery or extortion, and employment corruption, all adding up to an alarming 36 000 complaints received since 2012.

Causes of Corruption

Corruption Watch attributes the high prevalence of corruption to “a leadership crisis where politicians and administrators are serving their personal, factional and private interests, rather than the interests of the people or the constitution”.

In the available literature, there seems to be general consensus on the most common root causes of corruption all over the world: greed, high levels of market and political monopolisation, low levels of democracy, ethical bankruptcy, weak civil participation and low political transparency, high levels of bureaucracy and inefficient administrative structures, low press freedom and low economic freedom. Many of these causes can be ticked on the South African checklist, with our law enforcement bodies such as the SAPS and National Prosecuting Authority seemingly ill-equipped to stem the overwhelming tide.

Effects of Corruption

The effects of corruption are devastating on all fronts. State resources are drained, with funds earmarked for vital sectors such as health and education ending up in private pockets. This makes any form of developmental agenda virtually impossible. Corruption also erodes our social fabric as a nation, diminishing trust not only in our elected leaders and state institutions, but also in the people around us. In an environment with such a great focus on personal gain, all notions of ‘ubuntu’ and ‘serving the greater good’ simply disappear. We are becoming poorer as a nation, in every way imaginable. 

The perceived lack of retribution adds fuel to the fire. With very few people brought to book after the Arms Deal, a culture of impunity has been created that has escalated corruption in all sectors. The other mortal enemy in the anti-corruption battle is complacency. South Africans have become used to turning a blind eye to corrupt practices, even accepting it as normal, with many too scared to amend their ways, speak out, or raise the alarm for fear of losing positions. 

There is, however, a significant group that is still largely unembroiled in corrupt practices and that has markedly less interest in maintaining the status quo. That group is our youth.

Youth as Ideal Corruption Fighters  

“If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher.”  These are the words of former Indian president and aerospace scientist, Abdul Kalam. That good ethics and morals should ideally be taught from a young age in a secure family environment, remains true. But the sad reality of our South African society is that many students are the products of broken homes and absent or uninvolved parents. Despite this impediment, young people are generally relatively open to change and influence by the time they reach our tertiary education campuses. At this ‘coming of age’ phase of their lives, they are still very much making up their minds – not only about what they want to become, but about who they want to be. We have a unique window of opportunity to encourage them to veer away from pursuing narrow personal interests towards adopting a society-focused vision.

There is also a valuable set of characteristics that many young people in South Africa possess – often shaped by experience and circumstances. They have passion, resilience, drive, and innovation – traits that can help them make a success of whatever they decide to make their purpose. The fact that they are ‘digital natives’ also means that they are perfectly positioned to find original, inventive ways to implement new technologies; something that has become essential in the fight against corruption. Simply put, young people have what it takes to become anti-corruption champions. 

Another incontrovertible fact: young people form a significant part of our South African population. The latest statistics released by Stats SA show that individuals in the 15-34 age category constitute 63,3% of our population. With 66,5% youth unemployment, they are also the group most affected by the ravishing effect of corruption on job creation. 

And they are our future leaders. They have a vested interest in turning the tables on a scourge that is clouding their own horizons. Nothing is going to change if they do not become the agents of that change – ethical and socially responsive next generation leaders who can contribute to building a better world.    

Practical interventions against corruption – UFS Student Essay Writing Competition

The University of the Free State (UFS) has launched an essay writing competition on corruption for students to propose meaningful and practical steps on how it can be combated. The competition is open to all registered UFS postgraduate students and final-year undergraduate students on all three our campuses in all disciplines and faculties. It is largely the result of our mandate to respond pro-actively to challenges in society and to speak truth to power and to enhance accountability. 

We also firmly believe in effecting change through collaboration, which is why we are running the competition in partnership with established, respected anti-corruption organisations such as the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC), Corruption Watch, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), Accountability Now, the private sector, and concerned public individuals. The competition closes on 13 May 2022.

As an institution, we want to unequivocally denounce corruption. And we believe it is time to activate what is probably our greatest weapon in the fight against corruption: our youth. 

Getting Youth Buy-in

To ensure the future sustainability of any anti-corruption efforts, it is vital that they become co-creators of solutions, and not mere recipients of plans and policies in which they have played no part in creating. But they also need to know that their contribution will have a real impact. 

Therefore, as important as it is to have initiatives such as this to create awareness, the true test lies in what we do with what they propose. We need to listen to them. And we need to follow up with real action should they come up with workable, practical solutions. 

Because if we lose the buy-in of our youth, we have already lost the fight.  

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