The ASI Thought Laboratory 2019 took place at Constitution Hill on 28 August, with the theme centred around the need to step up the fight against corruption. With South Africa’s economy sliding into recession, suffering continual downgrades by the major international ratings agencies, and citizens growing increasingly frustrated by how widespread and deep-rooted corruption is, the event’s theme was both timeous and relevant. While much has been said about government corruption, ASI was taking the bull by the horns insofar as addressing the elephant in the room: corporate complicity in the endemic corruption that is threatening to collapse the economy and democratic dispensation of South Africa.

The MC for the day was Tumelo Mothotoane, a prolific communicator and journalist who, amongst other things, hosts eTV’s current affairs breakfast show The Morning Show, and anchors eNCA’s prime time news slot. She reminded everyone in attendance that it was necessary to have these courageous conversations about corruption even as the general public sentiment about this difficult issue veers towards despair.

The Roseneath Primary school choir got the event off to a rousing start with their moving rendition of the national anthem, followed by a solemn moment of silence to honour Dr Thandi Ndlovu, the pioneering businesswoman who had passed on the week before. MC Tumelo then asked ASI’s founder and CEO, Anthony Govender, to offer his opening remarks.

Anthony observed that, although there was a general sense of frustration in the nation with regard to corruption, we could not afford to approach this critical question with an attitude of despondency, as if fighting a losing battle. The fight to root out corruption is not, he pointed out, one we can afford to lose. “For every corrupt politician there is a corrupt businessman,” laying the ground for the theme of the day, which suggested both corporate culpability and, consequently, corporate responsibility in the fight against the scourge of corruption. The possibility of government dipping into pension funds, to solve a liquidity problem caused by the wide-scale looting of government coffers, was raised by Anthony as one of the things that simply could not be allowed to happen. “In our determination to protect the interests of our clients, we call upon the corporate, civil, labour and all other sectors to ensure that the state does not extend its mismanagement of the economy to the actual pensions of citizens,” he added. The wellbeing of future generations also depended on the success of the present-day fight to root out corruption, he pointed out.

In her keynote address, Busisiwe Mavuso, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, spoke on the topic, “The Future of the South African Economy in the wake of Corruption”. In a hard-hitting speech, Busisiwe pointed out that the seriousness of South Africa’s corruption problem was such that, “nobody can afford to sit on the fence anymore. It is time to make a stand and let your voices be heard, otherwise we risk joining the long list of failed African states,” she said. She pointed out that the problem of corruption calls for every citizen, whatever their political affiliation or station in life, to put country first and leave partisan interests aside.  “We are on the brink of economic and institutional collapse, because of corrupt practices,” she stated, pulling no punches. Busisiwe pointed out that while it is important to retain a positive outlook even in the midst of such difficulty, it was important to be realistic about the extent of the rot, and therefore the decisiveness with which corruption needs to be rooted out.

“South Africa is no longer the only gateway into Africa’s economy for foreign direct investors, so we need to wake up and act swiftly. We need to act decisively, and we need for everyone who is on the side of good to commit fully to this fight against corruption. When bad people come together in order to carry out evil and dishonest schemes, that is the time when good people have to unite and fight back. For the good of this country, for present and future generations, otherwise there will be no country left to even fight for. That is how serious and deep-rooted the corruption in this country has become,” she said.

Following the keynote address was a panel discussion involving His Excellency The Mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba; the Executive Director of Corruption Watch, David Lewis; and the CEO of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), Wayne Duvenage. In responding to the question of outlining what experiences of corruption he has experienced in his tenure, Mayor Mashaba pointed out that the city of Johannesburg has been found to be the corruption capital of the entire globe. He revealed that in his time as Mayor he had already unearthed more than R34 billion worth of corruption, and had to fire more than 1 000 city employees implicated in corrupt practices. He expressed the hope that the new leadership of the National Prosecuting Authority would prove to be more honest and thorough in chasing up the various counts of corruption that his administration was bringing to their attention.

Corruption Watch Executive Director David Lewis came down hard on the corporate sector, highlighting the damaging role that corporate complicity has had in bringing South Africa’s economy to the precipice. David did not reserve his criticism only for those business leaders actively involved in corruption. He also had scathing words for the corporate sector in general, saying that he had observed that there was a deficit of courage in their ranks while they could clearly see the enormity of the corruption problem. David argued that it is misleading to talk about public vs private corruption, “because most corruption takes place at the interface of public and private business interests”. “How many business leaders are prepared to speak truth to power,” he asked? “Not many. We are facing a corruption crisis of epic proportions and it is time the corporates made their voices heard when we have these courageous conversations,” he added.

CEO of OUTA Wayne Duvenage issued a rallying cry for the corporate sector and ordinary citizens to join actively in the fight against corruption. “No contribution is too small, please give what you can to the various civic organisations committed to fighting against corruption. The reality is that we need money and resources to do what we do, and so we rely on the support of every citizen who is conscious about the seriousness of the problem this nation faces with regard to corruption,” he pointed out.

Following the panel discussion there was an opportunity given to the more than 550 people in attendance, to ask questions via mobile app using the hashtag #ThoughtLab2019. Importantly, in answer to one of the questions, OUTA CEO Wayne Duvenage mentioned that it was inaccurate to say that no arrests have been made under the Ramaphosa administration, which has committed to rooting out the corruption that became endemic during the previous administration. He pointed out that at the level of local government they had already started seeing evidence of the new President’s commitment to anti-corruption, with people being charged and arrested for corrupt practices. He said it was only a matter of time before some really big heads began to roll, and therefore everyone involved in the fight against corruption needs to maintain their commitment and redouble their efforts.

A highlight of the proceedings was when ASI CEO Anthony Govender, in giving his closing remarks, boldy announced that in ASI’s stance against corruption, ASI will be pledging a million rand towards an Anti-Corruption Fund. He urged other corporates to join ASI in actively and materially participating in the fight against corruption. Anthony reiterated ASI’s commitment to conducting business in a manner that does not betray the client’s or the nation’s trust. Referring to ASI’s own anti-corruption campaign with the slogan, “The C-Word”, he said that this could mean different things to different people, but that for him the “C-Word” primarily meant CARE. “Do you care enough to partner with us in this fight for the very future of our country, this fight against corruption?,” he asked the high-profile guests in attendance. The event ended on a high note with a delicious “Food for Thought” lunch on the square served to all who attended.