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South African church leaders say COVID-19 corruption kills, as they campaign against it

South African church leaders say COVID-19 corruption kills, as they campaign against it

Nelson Mandela’s statue in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, seat of South Africa’s administration. Photo: Peter Kenny/WCC, 2017

23 September 2020

South African church leaders heard that corruption in their country kills when they organized for a campaign against the latest version of pillaging during the fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The South African Council of Churches has organized a nationwide campaign against corruption during September, Heritage Month. It is under the banner "Corruption is not our heritage" which highlights the human and monetary costs of corruption involving government officials and people in the private sector.

"People often speak about corruption is an abstract matter of rands [dollars] and cents, or irregular expenditure," said University of Pretoria political science lecturer Dr Sithembile Mbete in a webinar organized by the SACC on 9 September to launch the campaign.

"And people have died because of the COVID-19 disease from having incorrect personal protective equipment and other issues that are related to the kind of corruption that we've seen around this issue.

"So, this isn't just a high-level political issue but something about how we live as a society and whether people survive living in South Africa," said Mbete, who moderated the lecture.

Creating a future

Ziphozihle Siwa, presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and president of the South African Council of Churches led prayers at the beginning of the webinar saying, "We pray Oh Lord that we use this time as we create a future. We know that future may be created by the actions of each and every citizen of this country."

Before the campaign began, Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town had addressed the nation's president and other leaders about pandemic corruption.

"Mr President, this is not only stealing. It is annihilating the very lives of the poorest; it is almost genocidal in effect. Corrupt bigwigs who have joined your party, not to serve the common good but to enrich themselves, act with impunity – their attitudes are debilitating, life-drenching.”

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, cited Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former South African Anglican leader Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu writing on the humanity-based philosophy of “ubuntu."

"We know we belong in a greater whole diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, and others are tortured or oppressed -- in this case, by COVID corruption and greed," said Mpumlwana.

Also speaking at the webinar was South Africa's auditor general, Kimi Makwetu. He had released a scathing report earlier revealing that in some cases personal protective equipment was bought for five times more than the price the national treasury had advised.

Makwetu's report had tracked the spending of 500 billion rands ($26 billion) equivalent to 10 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

"A lot of the effort that we put into this on the detection side of things has revealed a number of frightening findings that require to be followed up very quickly," he said at a press conference.

Only spent money has value’

Mbete quoted the auditor general's words at the webinar that the money in the national coffers, "does not have value until it is spent on the people for whom it is intended."

Prof. William Gumede, a Witwatersrand University governance assistant professor, said: ”I understand these gangsters; I grew up with gangs in the Cape Flats," a crime-and poverty-ridden area of Cape Town.

"Real gangsters are setting up political parties, so we need to have a tightening of the rules for people who set up these political parties and for people who get elected."

Gumede noted, "We need to bar companies found guilty of corrupt practices," and their actions need to be made public.

At the end of the webinar, Mbete said, "I hope to take this as a real clarion call for us to build the kind of South Africa, that we intended to in 1994," when Nelson Mandela became president of the country. The future is defined by justice and a better life for all of us."

South African Council of Churches to hold countrywide silent prayers against corruption (WCC press release 15 September 2020)

WCC member churches in South Africa