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Faith and corruption: The religious sector has an important role to play in the fight against malfeasance

Opinionista • Brij Maharaj • 24 August 2020

This is not a time for silence. The SA Hindu Maha Sabha supports the demands for accountability, transparency and consequences for the looters of Covid-19 funds and all forms of corruption.

Om asato ma satgamaya, Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
(O Lord Lead us from Untruth to Truth, From Darkness to Light)

This mantra (sacred chant) from the (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, I.iii.28) encompasses the essence of the Hindu view towards corruption. Hindu scriptures explicitly condemn corruption and promote truthfulness. Hindu scriptures declare: “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth alone triumphs) (Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.6).

A common thread in Hindu scriptures (and indeed, in all faiths) is the call to fight for justice and righteousness, and corruption is a deviation from this path.

In our country, malfeasance thrives in this era of unrighteousness; the darkness of corruption envelops our nation; the Zondo Commission grapples to establish the truth; while law and order and the justice system have been manipulated to favour the corrupt ruling elite, their families, friends, associates and handlers. 

Religions have generally been associated with the ideals of peace, tolerance, non-violence, fairness, equality and justice. In 1993, the Assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, recognising that “every human being must be treated humanely”, committed itself to a culture of “non-violence and respect for life; solidarity and a just economic order; equal rights and partnership between men and women; tolerance and a life of truthfulness.”

There is a close association between religion, ethics and morality. In fact, the faith sector is widely believed to be the custodian of ethics, morality and integrity. However, as Professor Syed Shahabuddin has argued:

“Belief in religion is not always based on what a sacred book teaches, but what society believes religion is. That is, morality, ethics, and behaviour are learned by observing what is practiced and followed in social structures rather than knowing what is in the sacred books of various religions. As a result, if corruption is socially acceptable and condoned, everyone will accept and follow the practice regardless of sacred books teaching against immorality”.

From a broader interfaith perspective, South Africa is an actively religious country with more than 80% professing to belong to a faith and visiting places of worship regularly. This makes religion the largest, organised sector in South Africa which is far more powerful and influential than any political party, with an extraordinary capacity to mobilise against unrighteous acts like corruption and the pandemic of gender-based violence. To what extent have these themes featured in our weekly religious sermons and discourses? By our silence, are we not complicit?

Of course, the faith sector is not perfect and has not been impervious to the stench of corruption as we have a fair number of charlatans among us, especially those who are self- appointed, unaccountable, fool the poor with ridiculous sleight of hand tricks, and primarily focus on the weekly takings. 

As much as we rightly criticise government, politicians and the business sector, the leadership of the faith sector has to engage in some introspection in terms of the extent to which we have failed to reduce corruption. Did we trust politicians too much, were we afraid of them, or did we benefit from their largesse? By promising the poor a better afterlife, are we turning a blind eye to their current harsh, lived experiences?

Corruption is the pandemic in South Africa, far more serious than Covid-19. As Justice Emmanuel Ayoola from Nigeria has argued, “corruption is a scourge worse than any disease one can imagine. It is an agent of mass destruction, destroying the lives of people, the future of our youths, and the values of our society”.

In South Africa, corruption is most prominent and entrenched in the sectors of government that are tasked with addressing the basic needs of the poor, in areas such as housing, education, water provision and healthcare.

The poor are thus deprived of basic essential services. Hence, corruption is deepening the vast socio-economic cleavages endemic in the country caused by decades of state oppression and apartheid underdevelopment. Ordinary citizens become victims and are left helpless, with the poor being the most disadvantaged. As Ahmed Kathrada reminded us:

“When I say we have achieved dignity as human beings, we must always still be aware that the challenges… are poverty, hunger, malnutrition, unemployment, housing. And there is no dignity in poverty, there is no dignity in hunger, so we cannot be satisfied in what we have achieved.” 

Corruption is now a badge of honour in South Africa, almost a prerequisite for upward political mobility. In embracing democracy idealistically, South Africans misjudged a fatal flaw – the greed associated with the politics of power, privilege and patronage. Billions of rands destined for the poor and disadvantaged were siphoned into the pockets of those close to the ruling party. The public outrage associated with the looting of Covid-19 funds and resources is perhaps the final wake-up call for government and civil society. 

The South African Hindu Maha Sabha supports the demands for accountability, transparency and consequences for Covid-19 corruption (and all other forms of malfeasance) initiated by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. Civil society and the faith sector have an important role to play in the fight against corruption. The faith sector is ideally placed to “speak truth to power”, without fear or favour.DM

This is the address given at the online Stop C19 Corruption Rally, 21 August 2020, organised by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. Professor Maharaj is an Executive Member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha.

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