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State looting and the Church

The looting of the state coffers is a crime against the poor that requires, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya argues, that the church respond to its prophetic mission of being on the side of the marginalised.

Imagine if the government gave the most vulnerable members of society a once off R1,600 to buy the little extras they ordinarily have to do without?

The multiplier effect (a phenomenon wherein a given change in a particular input, such as government spending, causes a larger change in an output, such as gross domestic product) would be almost immediately noticeable.

It would possibly boost the economy, push back the ever present challenges of poverty and unemployment. The problem of inequality would not go away because the very wealthy would still be very wealthy.

I will be the first to admit that this is a pipe dream. There is a greater chance of Iraq winning the next rugby world cup than the South African state thinking of even giving a tenth of that amount to its people.

In case you are wondering why R1,600, here is the answer. Fact verifying agency Africa Check says there are about 17,5 million people in South Africa who receive social grants.

If each of these people were to receive about R1,600, the total would amount to about R28-billion. This is the equivalent of the cash South African municipalities spent irregularly, or could not properly account for, in the 2016/17 financial year.

This figure does not include monies spent by the various provincial governments. So the reading could be a lot more bleak.

The net effect of all this is that the state has, by continuing to fail to rein in maladministration and corruption, become an accomplice in keeping the poor, destitute.

Irregular and wasteful expenditure by the state is therefore a crime against the poorest in society and not just an accounting aberration.

Considering that last year, municipalities irregularly spent R16-billion, incompetence is on the increase which leads to the crime of the misappropriation of funds. There are very few examples of people who have been held accountable or been made to pay for their misdeeds.

Unless there are drastic measures to control the use of public funds, it is not pessimistic to expect an increase in this malfeasance in the next financial year.

State looting, for that is what the fancy accountant language really is, has become the easiest crime to commit in South Africa. This is mainly because the perpetrators are hardly ever arrested, let alone convicted and given jail terms.

Its many victims walk the streets, live in our parks and are all around us.

It is as though the state has chosen to fatalistically read the book of Deuteronomy 15:11 “for there will never be a time when there are no poor in the land” but chose to ignore the second part of the same verse which says: “I give orders to you, let your hand be open to your countrymen, to those who are poor in need in your land”.

This is just one of the many injunctions that the scriptures demand from us and what Catholic Social teaching calls us to: live the preferential option for the poor.

The tradition  the church, stemming from the scriptures to papal encyclicals – starting with Rerum Novarum in 1891 – by including, exhortations, statements and other communiques, has been to speak truth to power in defence of the poorest and most marginalised.

The church therefore has a moral and prophetic duty to take up the growing cancer of indifference to the common good, as demonstrated by allowing the public purse to be raided at will by political elites and their allies.

In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (The Concern of the Church for the Social Order), Pope John Paul II said: Positive signs in the contemporary world are the growing awareness of the solidarity of the poor among themselves, their efforts to support one another, and their public demonstrations of the social scene which, without recourse to violence, present their own needs and rights in the face of the inefficiency or corruption of public authorities.

“By virtue of her own evangelical duty, the Church feels called to take her stand beside the poor, to discern the justice of their requests, and to help satisfy them, without losing sight of the good of groups in the context of the common good.”

This necessarily requires a reflective church, continuously looking at itself to see how it promotes or inhibits the culture of corruption or of (social) justice and peace.

To look to politicians, their business elite allies or the church hierarchy for redemption would be akin to blankly staring at the sky like the apostles after Jesus’ Ascension. The work of building a corruption free and socially and economically just society starts with us, where we are, with what we have at our disposal.

Image: Corruption Watch SA

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.