South Africa's Moral Crisis

The Christian Century, January 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

South Africa's Moral Crisis


In a major bid to solve their nation's moral crisis, South Africa's religious and political leaders, including President Nelson Mandela, committed themselves this past fall to a code of conduct incorporating ten principles: integrity, incorruptibility, good faith, impartiality, openness, accountability, justice, respect, generosity and leadership. The code is aimed at helping the country come to terms with its crime and corruption problems that many see as spiraling out of control.

The level of violent crimes in South Africa is five times higher than the average rate on the international crime index, according to a survey released in 1997 by a banking group, Nedcor. Police statistics for the first quarter of 1998, however, show that the level of most serious crimes has stabilized or declined in the past four years, even though the number of crimes is still unacceptably high.

Of particular concern are rape and corruption. South Africa has the world's highest incidence of reported rapes, with one occurring every 25 seconds, according to Kumi Naidoo, executive director of the South African Non-Governmental Organizations Coalition. Statistics indicate that there are 121 reported rapes per 100,000 people in South Africa every year; the U.S. figure is 37.1 per 100,000 people.

Last February Judge Willem Heath, who heads the Special Investigating Unit set up by the Mandela government to unearth corruption and recover state assets, said that 834 cases involving $1.87 billion had been uncovered. Judge Heath also said earlier this year that corruption, mismanagement and fraud amounting to many millions of dollars are waiting to be exposed in South Africa's government structures. "We haven't touched it yet," the judge remarked. "It's unbelievable, the extent of corruption wherever we go. Whichever department we look in, corruption is a major problem."

According to Heath, however, the unit's success in uncovering corruption did not indicate that there had been no fraud and theft before the black majority government came to power in 1994. "It was as bad, or even worse, before the election, but it wasn't so transparent, and maybe people were more sophisticated in what they were doing at that time," he said.

Even South Africa's police are a subject of deep concern. Police officers are three times more likely to commit crime than ordinary members of the public, official figures show. Statistics provided by the minister of safety and security, Sydney Mufamadi, demonstrate the extent of police involvement in criminal activities.

One of the negative aspects of the ending of South Africa's international status as a pariah during the apartheid era has been the arrival of organized crime following the opening up of the country's borders. In a recent report the World Economic Forum described South Africa's organized crime as second only to Colombia's, troubled by drug cartels, and Russia's, with its powerful mafia. More than 190 sophisticated crime syndicates have flourished in South Africa, according to police intelligence estimates. They include elements of the Russian mafia, which are involved in diamonds and weapons smuggling; Chinese triads, specializing in the trade of endangered species; and Nigerian drug rings.

"It appears that the political and diplomatic isolation of South Africa during the apartheid years protected it to some extent from the organized-crime phenomenon which was rapidly going international in tandem with the growth of the global village," Mark Shaw of the Institute for Security Studies noted recently.

The "Morals Summit" held this past October in Johannesburg was organized by the National Religious Leaders' Forum, which was formed in 1997 after the representatives of the country's main faiths met with President Mandela to discuss the spiritual and moral malaise besetting South Africa. …

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