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Next up in curbing corruption: South Africa

Shift in thought

Large protests against corruption could help force President Zuma to resign. South Africa, like many large emerging economies, faces a rising demand for honesty and accountability.

Demonstrators protest against South African President Jacob Zuma outside the union building in Pretoria, South Africa, April 7. South Africans gathered for nationwide demonstrations against Zuma, whose dismissal of the finance minister fueled concerns over government corruption and economic weakness.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

Just a decade ago, five of the world’s largest emerging economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – began to meet and flex their collective muscle on the world stage. After all, their combined economies are nearly a quarter of global gross domestic product. They even adopted a name: BRICS.

Since then, however, each of these countries has been forced to face a common issue: popular demand for honest and transparent governance.

In 2011, India saw mass anti-corruption protests. In Brazil, similar demonstrations began two years later. In both of those democracies, the protests helped bring about major change in leadership and reform. In China, where villagers often rise up against corrupt local officials, the ruling Communist Party began an anti-corruption campaign in 2012. And last month, Russia saw massive anti-graft protests in dozens of cities.

Now it is South Africa’s turn.

In the past two weeks, the economic powerhouse of Africa has witnessed some of the largest protests since the country’s anti-apartheid struggle and the start of pluralistic democracy in 1994. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets seeking the ouster of President Jacob Zuma, especially after he fired his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, who was seen as a bulwark against mass corruption. In addition, Mr. Zuma was accused last year by prosecutors of using public money to improve his private residence.

The demand for clean government in South Africa is so strong that a civil society group, Corruption Watch, has collected reports of more than 15,000 whistle-blowers since 2012. In a recent poll, 7 out of 10 people say Zuma should resign. The issue of corruption has also united the opposition parties for the first time despite their strong ideological differences. And it also has driven a wedge in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the party of the late Nelson Mandela.

Next week the Parliament will vote on a motion of no confidence in Zuma. The opposition hopes for a secret ballot so that ANC members can vote their conscience and not be punished by the party’s vast patronage network.

In all of the BRICS, corruption became an issue because ruling parties stayed in power too long. In addition, young people, now better connected through the internet, know their future depends on honest leaders who believe in rule of law and equality of opportunity.

“Meaningful freedom,” said Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s former lead public prosecutor, in a recent speech, “is freedom from all corrupt practices in state affairs and private life.”