Fresh hope for a just society? Newly elected ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa greets delegates with President Jacob Zuma at the University of the Free State during the ANCs conference in Mangaung on Tuesday. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Corruption is eating away at Africa’s biggest economy, stifling growth, marring its international reputation and, most importantly, hurting the poor. As the ANC elected its leaders this week, it should recognise the problems, opportunities and challenges ahead and make fighting corruption a priority.

From allegations of dodgy procurement deals on textbooks in Limpopo to alleged flaws in the tender process for a contract with the SA Social Security Agency, hardly a week goes by without a corruption scandal hitting the headlines. Unfortunately, despite the outrage, few people are held to account.

This can change. The years after the end of apartheid were marked by shared optimism in society and although this may be diminished, there is still the hope and aspirations for social justice. Tackling corruption is today arguably one of the greatest obstacles to realising this vision.

Moreover, citizens are demanding greater transparency and accountability and with general elections scheduled for 2014, politicians would do well to listen.

Reforms should indeed start at the top because it is the government that sets the country’s moral compass. For example, to establish a benchmark for transparency throughout the political system, all top government officials, including the president and cabinet ministers, should be asked to publish a register of their assets.

President Jacob Zuma, who has just been re-elected to lead the ANC into the next elections, has been dogged by corruption allegations. It would demonstrate his commitment to transparency and accountability if he released details of the costs of the renovations at his private residence. It has been a lack of access to this information that has fuelled allegations of improper spending.

The government should also amend the Protection of State Information Bill. If it is passed in its current form, it is likely to muzzle the media and discourage whistle-blowers from coming forward. A free press and protection for whistle-blowers are critical to enable the people to hold public officials to account.

Transparency, coupled with credible enforcement is at the heart of all anti-corruption efforts. To this end, the government should strongly consider appointing an anti-corruption agency, independent of political parties, to ensure that the rules and regulations that cover conflict of interest and public contracting are not subverted.

It would logically follow that the government should scrap the current law that allows those holding public office to concurrently hold positions in companies that work on government contracts. The scope for “legal” favouritism is too large under the current legislation, which insists only that politicians list their interests.

The deterrence for wrongdoing is too weak. For example, the only action resulting from the scandal surrounding the social security tender was the announcement of an investigation by the US Department of Justice, under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, because a company involved was listed on a US stock exchange.

The South African authorities are not yet pursuing the case.

As the politicians and their supporters gather in Mangaung, it is important to stress the need for a political elite that values integrity and public service above self-interest and patronage. If corruption continues to flourish, the important battles for freedom from oppression will not deliver true justice to the most vulnerable in society who suffer yet again.