Civil Society and corruption: a time for self-introspection

Velaphi Mamba, Team Leader Economic & Social Justice, OSISA.

For the past 12 years I have had the privilege of working in civil society in Swaziland and the region. My first experience came through a brief stint with the Council of Swaziland Churches (CSC) and now my current employment with the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).

I therefore draw heavily from my work experiences, interactions, observations and activism during my time in these two organizations both in Swaziland and subsequently at the regional level.

I have been asked to address the problem of corruption, lack of accountability and non-existent ethical leadership within civil society. These are problems that are as endemic in civil society as they are within the state.

It is my hope that this article will trigger a sense of reflection and self-introspection with the hope that all of us in the mass democratic and social justice movement will take a long hard look at ourselves. We must be able to ask if we still are in the movement to serve or pursue personal gain.

I must hasten to state at the very beginning that my reflections do not suggest that the entire civil society movement should be painted with the same brush – there are certainly exceptionally great people and organisations doing amazing work.

However, the continued silence of those who continue to still discharge themselves in the highest ethical standards means that they are equally complicit to the current state of affairs. I end the article by highlighting what I consider to be the urgent steps that need to be taken in addressing the prevailing challenge.

It is common cause that civil society, in its widest definition possible (NGOs, the Church, Trade Unions, Youth and Women’s Movements as well as other Social Interest Groups), has rightfully identified corruption as a huge social ill and scourge – in fact a crime against humanity.

As such, many financial interventions across the region and the continent are geared to fight and root out corruption in all its forms and manifestations. This is often done through the support and use of donor, philanthropic and state funds.

The latter comes mainly from the West, Europe and other multilateral agencies. This is largely informed by the appreciation that corruption steals funds meant for social upliftment and development.

In essence, it steals directly from the poor and condemns them to a cyclical life of unending, brutal and dehumanising poverty ultimately killing them – for indeed, in the final analysis, the human cost of corruption is loss of life and dignity.

From my experiences and observations, while civil society is often vocal at pointing the finger at the state, from its own backyard comes a sometimes even stronger and unbearable stench of corruption. The tragic thing is that few seem to smell this stench. It has become so normal that none are willing to stand up and fight it.

The popular narrative is to point fingers at the state and corporate actors without so much as lifting a finger against unscrupulous elements who have captured the civic space for personal gain, self-aggrandizement and wealth accumulation. They now mimic what the corrupt political and public functionaries have done to state funds.

In other words, the fight against corruption bears the hallmarks of an external and outward looking lens that does not shine light on the rot taking place internally. This cannot be right.

I have come across a plethora of cases in Swaziland and in the region where daylight looting of donor funds is the order of the day – where “wolves in sheepskins” have devised advanced fool-proof strategies and systems of stealing the very funds and assets given out for public good.

These include, but not limited to, double/false reporting, fraudulent payments for work not done, poor project delivery (while salaries continue to be drawn), kickbacks, commission charging, diversion of funds for personal use, outright theft, abuse of finances and organizational assets (through personal trips, inflated per diems as well as use of organisational monies for vacations with girlfriends/boyfriends, etc..

This conduct is not only limited to those who apply for and receive funds, but also those, like myself, often tasked with stewardship over those resources. Some amongst us tend to use their privileged positions to curry all manner of favours, from kickbacks, commissions and even sexual favours.

Consequently, funds meant for important social causes often ends up building obscene wealth and lavish lifestyles, which can never be accounted for through the salaries that civil society actors receive. This is often at a huge expense to those the struggle is supposedly waged – the poor and marginalised.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with building one’s wealth and asset base through legitimate means in line with traceable income streams. However, there is clearly everything wrong, immoral and repugnant with stealing from the poor, especially by those professing to work for the cause of human rights and social justice.

Accountability is a very important element in advancing good governance, human rights and social justice. If everybody in strategic public service roles (whether in the state, business or civil society sectors) were transparent and accountable, the problems in this continent would be minimal.

As it is often said, to whom much is given much is expected; those entrusted with public funds (for donor and philanthropic funds are public funds) must be accountable for every single cent. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case in some quarters of the civil society.

I have heard and seen acts of impunity where leaders of such organizations act and live like demi-gods – all powerful and with no measure of accountability whatsoever.

In fact, it would appear that in a majority of cases civil society organisations are established for purposes of creating employment and economic opportunities for those who found them, hence the widespread and pervasive “Founder’s Syndrome”.

In such cases, governing boards and structures of accountability are co-opted to include friends and relatives. Where constitutionally sound board members and structures do exist they are decimated and their oversight functions eroded so that those in the daily leadership of the organisation can do as they please.

In equal measure, ascendancy to civic bodies such as trade unions is often motivated by a desire to “eat” than serve. This is why the typical trade unionists (again not all of them) will concern themselves with the perks, allowances and other benefits that come with sitting in such entities while completely forgetting their historical and important role – uplifting and fighting for the welfare of those who elect them to office.

For example, there is a practice of fighting for international trips such as the annual International Labour Organization (ILO) conferences and other similar global gatherings because they come with hefty allowances.

Our leaders do not want to miss an opportunity to fly to Geneva and elsewhere and in many instances simply to do nothing but roam around or go on shopping sprees.

This is but one example – there are also cases where male leaders in particular will co-opt and fly or travel with female and often junior union or organisation members solely for the purpose of sexual gratification financed by donor funds.

These practices are well known within the civil society circles, but spoken about in hushed tones or often swept under the carpet. Given the foregoing, is it then not time we faced these demons within our ranks and exorcised them sooner rather than later?

Deeping a culture of accountability and ethical leadership is a must! Ethical leadership must begin at the individual levels before it extends to organisational and institutional levels.

It cannot be proper that we remain silent and bury our heads in the proverbial sand while vile elements exploit and muddy the operational landscape for everyone in the social justice and human rights space.

It cannot be standard practice for women in the body politic of the struggle to be exploited, side-lined or only given opportunities to rise up the ranks only if they grant perverted men sexual favours.

It cannot be proper nor ethical that nepotism and corruption are allowed to thrive within civic society when our envisioned state is one that is based on the principles of service to our people.


In stating this, I recognize that there are those who may feel I am being too idealistic, that real life circumstances and considerations occasion for the current state of affairs.

But this view would be defeatist and typical denial-ism – to address these threats, we need to be brave enough to confront reality, take stock of the impact of poor ethical leadership and the loss that comes with it.

For example, a lot of civic organizations have seen their funding cut, job losses and closures of organisations because of a few unscrupulous individuals or organized cartels within the civic space who conducted themselves unethically thus ruining not only the work that is cut out for us to pursue, but also the chances for marginalized communities to benefit from resources meant for their upliftment.

The clarion call is for civil society across the region and the continent to take a step back and do some serious self-introspection with the view to end these nefarious practices.

Such a process must be genuine and aimed at getting the civil society movement back onto the pedestal of living and walking by the principles for which it advocates.

We must recognize that civil society is the consciousness, the compass and conscience of any society – it is the moral pulse that drives the human rights and social justice agenda.

It cannot be that it is easy to see and point fingers at the state while we ourselves cannot be held to the highest standard of ethical and principled conduct. There must be consequence management for those found in the wrong with them sent to jail and their illegitimately gained assets seized.

My greatest fear is that where we seek change, such as in despotic states like Swaziland, Zimbabwe and others, this change is likely to be worse than what the status quo currently is.

We therefore need to disabuse ourselves of the demons of impunity within our rank and file.

Civil society must place a high premium and zero tolerance for corruption within its ranks. We must call each other out while also holding each other to high ethical standards.

This article first appeared in lingashoni