The keynote address was delivered by activist Mark Heywood, Executive Director of SECTION27, a public interest law centre that promotes human rights. Mr Heywood has written on the linkages between corruption and political economy, and recognises that livelihoods can be destroyed by a system rooted in corruption.  He argued that systems as such, negatively affect service delivery and impede on the overall enjoyment of socioeconomic rights outlined in the Constitution.

Mr Heywood began his speech with two stories – of Michael Komape and Angel Sibanda – young children whose lives were cut short by the corrosive nature of corruption. Mr Heywood used these narratives to highlight that corruption is not an esoteric debate or a “victimless crime”, rather it is a poignant reality which reaps its worst effects on the poor.

Mr Heywood then positioned ‘corruption’ in a Constitutional context. He argued that corruption undermines the entire Constitutional schema. To bolster his argument, Mr Heywood recited the Preamble, which aims to promote “democratic values, social justice, and fundamental human rights”.  He honed into the words “social justice” and affirmed that this is at the core of the Constitutional ethos.  In reference to social justice, Mr Heywood stated that socioeconomic rights e.g. right to health, housing, and basic education, must be protected, ­and that achieving these rights is fundamental to achieving equality. 

He underlined that corruption tends to take form as a vicious circle, which disrupts the Constitutional schema.  In addition, corruption has become a major factor that prevents the realisation of socioeconomic rights. In turn, this perpetuates inequality, particularly racial inequalities, which consequently reinforce the legacy of apartheid. The second part of this cycle is that enduring inequality feeds corruption because there is a lack of skilled people coming out of the education system, to participate in the economy and government. This then leads to a continued ‘culture of corruption’, whereby people accept corruption. This new emerging culture tends to be a catalyst for social instability, which Mr Heywood argued leads to a complete rejection of the Constitution by poor people. He asserted that social instability creates fertile ground for populism, which often threatens civil and political rights.  He finished this projection of the corruption cycle by noting that corruption is in fact dangerous for the schema of the Constitution and social stability. Thus, breaking corruption and restoring good governance is fundamental to democracy.

The final part of Mr Heywood’s speech consisted of an analysis of the public sector and its involvement with corruption. He noted that the government is the primary agent of the Constitution, and it is their role to properly regulate the private sector to comply with the spirit of the Constitution. The public sector is responsible for awarding tenders related to rights, thus the duty falls onto them to protect the rights of people – a feat that he argued has been undermined.

The first example of public sector corruption he mentioned is that of the Limpopo Education Department’s 2012 bankruptcy. A report compiled by a former administrator for the department, Dr Anis Karodia, stated that there were unauthorised expenditures amounting to R2 billion, and, as a result the Department was unable to pay for textbooks for that year’s pupil intake. More recently, in January 2017, the Limpopo Department of Education was unable to provide stationary and textbooks to many rural schools, causing concern for a potential repeat of what occurred in 2012. 

Similar patterns can be observed in the health sector, with researchers estimating that R20 billion was wasted on corruption in 2011/12. In the same vein, Mr Heywood claimed that community healthcare workers are underpaid because health departments run out of money before paying them.  Additionally, last year saw the death of numerous psychiatric patients who died whilst being transferred out of Life Esidimeni, a facility contracted by the Department of Health and Social Development. Mr Heywood argued that this move may have evidence of malfeasance.

Mr Heywood concluded his address by asserting the need for more institutions that fight corruption. These institutions must lie at the heart of where the corruption occurs. Thus, strengthening Chapter 9 institutions, and building on them is crucial.  This can only be done through developing a stronger national legal framework, which is premised on ensuring good governance and transparency.

He quoted Justice Moseneke, saying there “was no pact on how to achieve the equality and social justice the Constitution promised”, which he described as one of the “wrinkles of our democratic transition”.  What was not anticipated though, was that socioeconomic rights would become a “source for plunder” by exploitative people – who often tend to reside within the state apparatus.  Mr Heywood stated that there must be a legal framework that keeps these people liable and free from impunity. In the meantime, though, he acknowledged that local communities and civil society have begun to campaign against corruption, which leaves him with hope.

Following Mr Heywood’s address, the audience raised a number of pertinent questions. The first audience member acknowledged the historical roots of corruption, dating back to colonisation and slavery.  He recognised that corruption has been embedded into the social fabric of South Africa for centuries, and was skeptical that it could be completely deconstructed.  Another audience member noted the complexity of ‘cultural corruption’ and emphasised the importance of implementing ethical training into a combative framework.  He also spoke about the importance of keeping power decentralised in the public sector, to ensure transparency in the innermost circles of the government. 

A consistent theme during the panel discussion was the importance of a strong civil society and the need for watchdog institutions, whose purpose is to hold government officials accountable and keep the public informed.  A final question posed to Mr Heywood focused on how these ‘watchdog’ organisations will combat corruption, because often there tends to be gaps between planning and implementation.  In his concluding remarks, Mr Heywood noted the importance of integrated and multi-disciplinary interventions. Such planning must include stakeholders from all levels of society, to ensure that even at the most local level, communities are mobilising against corruption.  

By Kiah Murphy: Intern, Centre for Constitutional Rights