We are on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It’s a day of fasting, intense prayer and deep introspection when we come before God to give an account of our lives. It’s the opportunity to begin our lives afresh, freed from the shackles of our past mistakes and wrongdoings; to reorient our trajectory and get our lives back on track.
Of course, this doesn’t just happen. To right the wrongs of the past requires real action. Not just words. To begin afresh takes heartfelt effort and application. It requires real, concerted action.
At this moment in our history, South Africa is at a similarly pivotal point. We are as a country also on the eve of our very own Day of Atonement. And if we are to alter our own country’s trajectory – if we are going to begin to realise our great promise as a nation – it’s going to take similarly decisive action and resolve – not just words.
The Zuma/Gupta years waylaid all the extraordinary progress we made as a country after 1994, and mired us in a swamp of corruption and moral degeneration, dashing the hopes of even the most optimistic and patriotic South Africans.
There has been some action taken by President Ramaphosa. Crucial government agencies tasked with rooting out high-level crime and corruption such as the National Prosecuting Agency (NPA) and the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) – neutered during the Zuma years – have been re-empowered.
And yet – the criminals that sacked this country roam free. More than that – some remain ensconced at the highest echelons of power and influence. Unsurprisingly, they continue to bleed our dwindling state coffers dry. Nowhere is this more apparent, and more sickening, than the recent misappropriation of Covid-19 relief funds, food supplies and PPE equipment, and the misallocation of vital (and highly lucrative) government contracts to bogus companies headed by close family members of key government decision makers. The feeding frenzy continues unabated.
President Ramaphosa has been outspoken about the situation. He recently wrote a strongly worded letter in which he decried ANC officials who abused their positions for personal gain, and stated that when it comes to corruption, the party stands as “accused no 1” in the court of public opinion. A few weeks later, he equated PPE-related corruption with murder.
The truth is that all corruption is murder. The Covid-19 thievery is but the most dramatic symbol of how corruption destroys lives. And it’s only the latest incident. The reality is that millions of South Africans suffer daily as a result of ongoing corruption at every level. Schools, hospitals, police stations and social welfare agencies continue to be under-staffed, under-funded, under-equipped to meet even basic needs. Service delivery of electricity, transport, water and other amenities are crippled by corruption, and outright thieving. Economic growth and foreign investment even before the pandemic had ground to a standstill. The scale of human suffering directly inflicted by acts of theft and corruption is heartbreaking.
Corruption is not just a matter of ethics – this is a humanitarian crisis.
The words of the Book of Genesis – “What have you done? The blood of your brother calls to me from the ground” – ring out across our country, calling out for an answer. God addresses these words to Cain after he murdered his own brother. In response, Cain offers only a shrug of indifference – “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, attempting to shirk accountability for his heinous act.
There are thousands of well-documented cases of corruption that have occurred over the past 12-and-a-half years. Lives have been lost and laid to waste as a result. Where are the prosecutions? Where are the convictions? Not one high level conviction from the Zuma/Gupta years? Not one politician brought to book over state theft amounting to R500 billion? Still? How is that possible? Where is the action? And the thieving continues unchecked.
“What have you done? The blood of your brother calls to me from the ground.” The total lack of accountability sends a clear message to the corrupt: you may proceed with impunity. As long as corruption and crime goes unpunished, the message is unequivocal: it is acceptable.
We need prosecutions and we need convictions. Without them it is impossible to even talk about moral regeneration in South Africa. As religious leaders we cannot preach ethics when criminals continue to plunder with impunity at every level of government – national, provincial, municipal. It is cold and heartless to let this continue. With the political will, it can be stopped. There must be convictions beginning at the very top of society, starting with the ruling party itself. It is an imperative to staunch the bleeding and end the suffering.
The President must act now. Yes, he has been admirably candid and outspoken about the problem – but the time for talk is over. We are all so weary of another speech, another letter, more words. The only thing that matters now is action. Prosecute. Convict. Without fear or favour. Now.
“Say little and do much” is the advice of the Talmud. Words are about appearances. Actions are authentic. Action is all that counts now. No more declarations. No more statements. Speak through prosecutions. Make sure the NPA has the people, the resources, and most importantly, the political support to do its work with speed. “Say little and do much” is about integrity. Upholding commitments. Delivering on promises. Being accountable.
The Day of Atonement teaches us that there can be no repentance and no forgiveness until there is accountability. Until there is action. Those who do not act to protect the innocent from the ravages of corruption are as guilty as the perpetrators. They live by the philosophy of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
And there can only be one answer to that question. We must rise up and demand accountability once and for all. We must say with a loud and clear voice to this government: “What have you done? The blood of your brother calls to me from the ground.”
Hear our cry, heed our blood – and take action. We must as a country face our own Day of Atonement – it’s the only way to correct the past and start building the future.