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State of public integrity in SA

- VUSI KHANYILE Chairperso­n of the Inclusive Society Institute This is an edited version of the speech delivered at the Integritas­za (Integrityb­ased Good Public and Private Governance Leadership) Conference in Wellington, Cape Town.

THE very foundation­s of our society, the bedrock of our constituti­onal democracy, are being tested.

A quarter of a century into our democratic journey, we are wrestling with persistent social ills, political fracture and economic stagnation, while fighting endemic corruption.

These phenomena place our collective future at risk. Times such as these represent moments of great peril, but also of promise.

For in times such as these, when leaders are feeble, when institutio­ns falter, when progress is forestalle­d, hope and courage must arise anew.

It is when the creative potential of our national systems seem most weakened that we must regain our strength and revisit our founding vision:

Our vision of a new and better South Africa.

A South Africa founded on the rule of law and on the rights of every individual.

A South Africa founded on the idea and indeed the ideal, that we can become a more equitable society, and rise from the ruins of our past.

To realise our dream, we must behold anew the vision of a nation marked by high standards of public integrity, upheld in service of the common good.

A country is made of its territory, but a nation is made of its people and the manner in which they conduct their affairs. As South Africa, we have committed ourselves to a constituti­onal dispensati­on. We have chosen the rule of law above violence and anarchy. We have chosen the common good over our individual or selfintere­st. But as a nation, have we truly chosen this high road?

The test of our public integrity is whether the norms of our society are aligned with the high standards, ethics and morals we espouse. Whether the governance patterns are not only in our formal processes and codified documents, but are upheld in our commitment to governance in the day-to-day expression of our actions.

The experience of the democratic years to date, and of the last decade in particular, have tested our resolve in these matters. In many instances, they have tested our joint and respective commitment­s, and too often we have been found wanting.

We might look to the report of the auditor-general to ascertain the degree to which our public coffers are being stewarded in the interests of our society.

We might look to the general state of our national fiscus and the allocation of our public purse, and note that our debts and dependenci­es are growing, even as our revenues and economic capacity declines.

We might look further still at the degree to which resources, meant for the most basic services in local government, reach their intended beneficiar­ies.

In all these instances we see an emerging pattern of a public sector beset with a lack of integrity.

A basic lack of the will and capacity to adhere to the rules set out in our laws, regulation­s and the guidelines of public procuremen­t.

The auditor-general informs us that while efforts are afoot to improve the real-time performanc­e of audits, wasteful and irregular expenditur­e has in fact increased in most public institutio­ns.

Of supreme concern is the persistenc­e of the mismanagem­ent of resources in our education system, and the deepening of corruption in the SAPS. The SAPS, tasked with protecting our communitie­s, cannot be the scene of ill-discipline and lawlessnes­s, if we are to realise the dream of a crime free society. Likewise, our schools, the spaces meant for nurturing our young minds for personal developmen­t and learning, cannot be left to become overgrown by self-enrichment at the cost of our future.

The horrendous greed demonstrat­ed by the misuse of public money during the Covid-19 pandemic, testify to the decline of public integrity.

Friends, these dark blotches on our national record should upset us greatly. But they should not leave us hopeless.

One of the many wonders of South Africa is that amid the darkness of our past and of these present difficulti­es, we remain a stubbornly hopeful people. We remain a people committed to overcoming our societal ills.

We remain committed to bringing into the light, into the realm of public judgement, the wrongs in our society.

The reason we know about our deficienci­es as a society is our willingnes­s to investigat­e them, to report them and to discuss them.

As Professor Somadoda Fikeni says, “South Africa is a noisy democracy”.

We are a democracy which cries out – no more, and not in our name!

This is evidenced by the Zondo Commission, which the World Bank ranks as the most transparen­t judicial inquiry initiated by a sitting president anywhere in the democratic world.

Between 2021 and 2022 we will likely witness a significan­t political realignmen­t in the democratic life of our nation. The degree to which we reform in matters of public integrity will determine where we stand at the end of this process.

I am again inspired by the words of Oliver Tambo: “We seek to create a united democratic and non-racial society.

“We have a vision of South Africa in which black and white shall live and work together as equals in conditions of peace and prosperity … a nation of which all of humanity can be proud.”

Indeed, my compatriot­s, for us to build a nation of which all of humanity can be proud, we must take up this challenge to make public integrity the cornerston­e of a new dispensati­on of efficient and effective governance. We must do so in service of the common good.

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