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Bishops’ statement on government corruption reveals deep frustration

The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) recently criticised the rampant corruption around the purchase of medical material and supplies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and called for immediate redress. Mike Pothier explains why the Bishops’ statement is important for the moral renewal of the ruling party.

On 13 August, the SACBC issued a “Statement in Response to the COVID-19 Procurement Scandal,” signed by SACBC President, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha.

It is by far the most direct and forthright statement from our Bishops in quite some time, and it reveals a sense of frustration, even anger, at the governing party’s continuing failure to deal with corruption consistently and urgently.

Corruption is no surprise . . .

“Although we are deeply appalled, the news of the looting of public resources during the pandemic does not come as big surprise,” write the Bishops. This is a dreadful indictment. Our faith leadership is saying, in effect, that they expected even the medical and emergency-relief efforts associated with a devastating pandemic to be targeted by the thieves, tenderpreneurs and rent-seekers who seem to infest almost every corner of government.

Our faith leadership is saying, in effect, that they expected even the medical and emergency-relief efforts associated with a devastating pandemic to be targeted by the thieves, tenderpreneurs and rent-seekers.

Of course they expected it. Which of us, when we heard of the vast sums of money that the state would be dedicating to food parcels, medical equipment and personal protective equipment, did not immediately think that this would constitute a field-day for crooked cadres up and down the country?

Well, sad to say, it seems that President Ramaphosa was not awake to this likelihood. It took him until 23 July to authorise the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) to look into unlawful or improper conduct related to COVID-19 expenditures. It is beyond absurd that, having watched the ANC’s descent into kleptocracy from close quarters, and having committed his presidency to undoing the rot of the Zuma years, he did not have the necessary SIU authorisations signed and sealed as soon as he declared the state of national disaster.

Perhaps this extraordinary lapse on Mr Ramaphosa’s part is one of the reasons why the Bishops direct much of their concern to him directly. “It is evident that the current corruption scandal has further eroded public confidence in the office of the President….We therefore make a special appeal to the President to abandon politics of expediency and appeasement and take bold steps to restore public trust in the presidency as an institution… We wish to remind the President that the time for inter-ministerial committees, commissions of enquiry and political compromises is now over.”

One cannot recall such language being used by the Bishops during the Zuma presidency; if it had been, it would have been wasted. But that is not the case with Mr Ramaphosa. The Bishops know that he is a fundamentally sincere and decent man – unlike his predecessor – occupying an extremely difficult position. For the sake of the country he cannot be allowed to fail, but the way to support him is certainly not to overlook his weak points; one of which, it seems, is an attachment to the “politics of expediency and appeasement.” Hence the unusually pointed tone of the statement.

… but it is a wake up call for government

Will it have any effect? It will certainly add to the groundswell of anger and resentment that is building up around the ANC’s entrenched culture of corruption, but it would be naïve in the extreme to think that those who regard a position in the party, or in government, as a path to wealth will repent of their ways just because a bunch of Bishops are cross with them.

It will certainly add to the groundswell of anger and resentment that is building up around the ANC’s entrenched culture of corruption.

But this kind of statement can be very useful as a moral encouragement and a spur to the efforts of the honest people in the governing party. Perhaps more importantly, it can be used tactically by the ANC’s angels in their many internal and factional battles against its devils. After all, if society’s moral voices were to remain silent the devils could argue fairly persuasively that their agenda was not likely to do the party any long-term damage.

Mr Ramaphosa’s strongly worded letter to ANC members, published over the weekend, shows that he is only too aware of the party’s faults, and that when it comes to corruption, the ANC is ‘accused number one.’ But he also knows very well that for many in the very heart of the senior leadership, including among the top six, the only concern is about getting away with corruption, not combating it.

How will all this end? Who knows – but if anything is clear it is that maximum pressure must be applied to the ANC’s honest leaders until they either cleanse the party or give up on it and create a new, realigned party to place before the voters. Our Bishops’ statement is a welcome addition to that pressure.

* 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.


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Mike Pothier
Mike Pothier is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, and Programme Manager of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) in Cape Town.

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