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No more holy smokescreens: churches must lead the anti-corruption crusade

- William Gumede

They should also clean their houses, then call out corrupt ‘leaders’ to make churchgoers aware of the damage they cause.

The organised church, with its enormous power, with its members who are not only voters, but political and business leaders, must urgently intervene to reverse the runaway corruption in South Africa which is threatening to turn the country into a fully-fledged failed state.

Almost 80% of South Africans say they are members of Christian denominations of one or the other. They therefore represent a potential major force to change the deep-seated culture of corruption in South Africa.

South Africa’s overarching societal good moral values, whether set by democracy, culture, or religion, which govern the behaviour of individuals, in intimate spaces, day-to-day interaction with others, or in the conduct of politics, business and government, has in many instances been corrupted.

Moral values define what people see as acceptable behaviour for themselves, what they belief behaviours they exhibit others will approve or not and what society collectively accepts or reject as acceptable behaviour by individuals. Because many of the overarching societal good moral values that are supposed to regulate behaviour are broken in South Africa, individuals engage in everyday corruption or look the other way when it happens.

Many of these overarching societal good moral values have been broken for several reasons. The governing ANC is systemically corrupt – many of its leaders, its values and its organisational culture have been deeply compromised. Systemic corruption within the governing ANC has also corrupted good moral values across broader society.

The ANC, the governing the country is operating as a party-state, where the party and the state have become almost one and the same, causing the South African state to become systemically corrupt. In a country with a monopoly liberation movement such as the ANC, which has been in power for long, the governing party’s culture also become to dominate the state, business, and market culture of the country.

Because the ANC as a governing party is so dominant in society, the party’s corrupt values, culture and behaviours are also replicated across society. The country’s political, business and market culture may also become corrupt, with companies, professionals and ordinary citizens seeing nothing wrong in engaging in corrupt activities because it is the way things are done.

Because the ANC and the state is systemically corrupt, many of the country’s private companies, professional firms, and professionals, particularly those having to engage with the corrupt state, may themselves mimic the corrupt culture of the ANC and the state – or at least uncritically accept it, to fit in, secure state contracts and positions.

African traditions have also become thoroughly corrupted. The corrupt often use African “traditions” selectively – fallaciously arguing when it suits them that they cannot be held accountable by the Constitution, because they supposedly adhere to African “laws,” to escape being held accountable for wrongdoing, incompetence, and incompetence. Many of the corrupt invent new non-existent African “traditions” to excuse their corrupt behaviour. Sadly, the naïve, the well-meaning and the ignorant in many instances fall for such corrupt schemes of these cynically corrupt “leaders.”

Corruption has also become entrenched because many formerly disadvantaged communities use apartheid to excuse their own corrupt behaviour. Some politicians would enrich themselves through corrupt means, saying the apartheid leaders did the same. Former President Jacob Zuma spent R280million of public money on his private compound, Nkandla, then claimed National Party leader PW Botha also had his private house refurbished when he was president.

During apartheid, the oppressed communities saw laws as illegitimate, to be defied. These include from littering, queue jumping to taxi drivers ignoring traffic laws. However, in the new democracy, many from the former oppressed communities defy laws, as if they still live under the apartheid regime, causing corruption.

The Constitution, which integrates the good elements of all the different moral frameworks of South Africa – whether religious, traditional, or civil, has been rejected by many ANC leaders, members, and supporters, and facing competition from informal frameworks, such as gang law, customary law, and the ANC’s party “laws.” This means South Africa has a fragmented moral universe, rather than a common, unifying one. In fact, the country faces a moral crisis.

Churches has a key role in tackling the slide into corruption brought about the country’s moral crisis. Before churches can tackle public, market, and citizen corruption, they must combat corruption within their own ranks. The corruption that has infused the ANC and the state, has also permeated parts of the church.

Church pulpits are increasingly used by politicians not only to campaign for the votes of parishioners ahead of elections, but also by corrupt politicians seeking the blessing of the church after they have been implicated in wrongdoing. Churches must not allow politicians to use their pulpits for political campaigning, nor to “bless” corrupt politicians.

Given the failure of public and elected representatives, church leaders can model good behaviour. Churches must manage their finances, property, and church administrations honestly. They must set the example in how to deal with corrupt church leaders within their ranks. Corrupt church leaders must be publicly held accountable.

Churches must work towards restoring South Africa’s overarching societal integrity or good behaviour norms, encourage acceptable behaviours and reject corrupt behaviour.

Churches must encourage new social norms, attitudes, and behaviours that rebased on integrity, respecting others, and accountability. They must do so by publicly disapproving of corruption, unethical behaviour, and disrespect for others. Churches must hold members who are leaders in politics, business, and civil society public accountable when they do wrong.

Many citizens appear not to see the wrong in corruption, the damaging impact on public service delivery, business collapse, joblosses and social breakdown. Fighting corruption in South Africa persistently fail because too many people do not see the wrong in corruption, others have a poor understanding of what corruption is, and yet others underestimate its damaging impact on individuals, government, and the economy.

Alarmingly many people think that corruption has no costs. This means that they do not see the urgency to tackle the scourge. Corruption is deadly. It takes lives, jobs, and opportunities. Ordinary citizens often continue to vote for corrupt parties and leaders – yet expect not to see public service delivery, factory closures and joblosses.

Opposition parties, civil society organisations and the media have also been unable to consistently make clear the link between higher corruption and joblosses, business collapse, public service delivery failures and social breakdown. The church has a vital role to play in linking, to their congregations, joblosses, public service delivery failures and factory closures and social breakdown to corruption. Churches must publicly criticise, oppose corrupt public and elected leaders.

Churches have a significant role to play to explain to parishioners the direct impact of corruption on their individual livelihoods. They should make a case for corruption as a crime against humanity.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This is an edited extract from his address, “The Church’s Response to Corruption,” to the Administrative Board meeting of Catholic Archbishops and Bishops and was published in the Sunday Times Daily.