Executive Director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Neeshan Balton, reflects on George Bizos’ simple, yet significant contribution to Nelson Mandela’s speech from the dock. He says that support for the #OrangeMaskFridays campaign against Covid-19 corruption is similarly simple, yet impactful. Balton states that it can go a long way to protect state resources so that it is in fact used to uplift society and achieve what Bizos and his counterparts would have envisioned in the Constitution.

Anti-apartheid lawyer, George Bizos, who passed away this week, leaves behind an illustrious legal legacy.

However, when one thinks of various political trials he was involved in and the array of human rights issues that Bizos was vocal about, there are three words which really stand out: ‘If needs be’.

Those who interacted with Comrade Bizos, knew that he loved telling stories, particularly how he convinced Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia Trial to add these three words into his concluding remarks from the dock.

Those three words now remain etched in our history, embedded in one of the most iconic speeches ever delivered by an accused in a South African Court: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

‘If needs be’ may sound like a simplistic intervention in a grand speech, but Bizos was of the view that it made a significant difference in the decision to grant the Rivonia Trialists a life sentence, instead of condemning them to the gallows.

There’s a great lesson to be learnt from this – that sometimes the smallest interventions are required at important moments to have lasting impact.

Bizos understood the moment, the law, the implications for the broader struggle against apartheid if the country’s leading revolutionaries were hanged, and the strategic intervention that could give the accused even the slightest chance against the death penalty.

Today, as we reflect on Comrade Bizos’ contributions – big and small, we similarly need to focus on what are the simple, yet impactful interventions that we must make to shift society forward.

It is without doubt that the country, at this moment, is at a crossroads.

Daily, there is almost tangible tension in the air as various forces tug this way and that, trying to consolidate power bases within and between political parties at all levels. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the shrinking of an already strained economy. Socially, there is barrage of horrific news: from gender based violence, to the shocking assault of one school pupil by another in KwaZulu Natal, the killing of a youth activist in Finetown and police in Eldorado Park charged with the murder of disabled teenager, Nathaniel Julies, who could not answer their questions.

Underpinning this deepening sense of crisis, are examples of the state being unable to deal with lawlessness. This is exhibited in it being ineffective in breaking up criminal syndicates duping the poor and vulnerable into paying for land that is not conducive for housing; and reacting well after millions had been siphoned from Covid-19 emergency funding.

It is perhaps this issue, that has really tipped the public barometer of anger – that as ordinary people lost jobs and went hungry, the corrupt in the public and private sector, stole millions of Rands meant for saving lives.

Today, we are poised between several forces: those behind capture and corruption, who in their quest to save their own skins and ensure that their personal taps do not dry up, will prevent a reform agenda at any cost; those who are pretending to back a reform agenda, but in reality just see an opportunity and believe that it is their turn ‘to eat’; and those who are honest and struggling to hold together the state and champion its rebuilding after years of capture.

It is here that we have to ask ourselves, what should our simple, yet significant contribution be to this equation? What can we say, or do, that will strengthen those who are honest and accountable, and who want to fix the state? How can we express outrage at the looting of Covid-19 resources? How can the public voice support for calls for transparency for all Covid-19 contracts, and for swift consequences for the looters?

Drawing inspiration from a moral call by the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and several foundations, a growing list of over 60 organisations have supported the #OrangeMaskFridays campaign. It includes amongst others, the Active Citizen’s Movement, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, COSATU, and Legal Resources Centre – which Bizos worked for since 1991.

This campaign is a simple one, yet, very much like Bizos’ three words, aims to have significant impact.

It calls on the public to make a statement every Friday against Covid-19 corruption by wearing an orange mask. This mask, which could be self-made or sourced by supporting local sewing cooperatives, simply needs to be orange in colour. This represents the orange overalls that Covid-19 looters should be wearing.

Over ‘Heritage Weekend’ this month, organisations, faith-based institutions, labour movements, communities and businesses are urged to conduct some form of activity – such as yard pickets, carcades or online seminars – raising awareness about Covid-19 corruption.

The campaign will culminate on 9th December, marked as International Anti-Corruption Day.

The initiative comes at a time when forms of public mobilisation are curtailed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Yet, in its simplicity, it aims to galavanise the public to visibly demonstrate that their anger at how state funding was looted during the crisis. It also encourages the use of social media using the campaign hashtag – #OrangeMaskFridays – to amplify the message.

This campaign is being complemented by very practical work by civil society organisations in analysing Covid-19 procurement information that has already been made public. It also includes developing plans around monitoring Covid-19 corruption cases, and enhancing whistleblower support mechanisms.

Various organisations are conducting policy review work and identifying gaps in implementation to put forward practical suggestions on how in the long-term, corruption can be prevented.

The Covid-19 crises has highlighted systemic inadequacies in our society, but also gives us an opportunity to begin to set precedent for addressing them.

At its heart, this campaign is really about the future of this country, and whether the looting spree will continue until there is nothing left ‘to eat’, or if we can recoup what was stolen and protect what remains in the fiscus and ensure that it is used to benefit society.

As Bizos himself articulated in a 2016 speech: The inclusion of justiciable socio-economic rights in the Constitution was a significant milestone, subject to the qualification of progressive realisation and availability of resources.  The goal requires the state to improve the enjoyment of socio-economic rights to the maximum extent possible, even in the face of resource constraints. But how does one reconcile the understanding of available resources in the face of the rampant corruption that we have seen to take place?  We are entitled, as we were promised, to demand openness, transparency and accountability from all, even those in the highest echelons of government, if we are to enjoy the ideals that were so hard won.”

As citizens of this country, we may not all have the legal mind and overwhelmingly courageous spirit of Comrade Bizos. But we do have an opportunity to learn from this giant of our struggle. We can today make a simple statement that collectively will have impact in protecting state resources meant for developing the society that Bizos and his counterparts envisioned in the Constitution. Make a contribution and wear your orange mask!

* For more details about the campaign, visit the Stop Covid-19 Corruption Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/StopC19Corruption.

This article first appeared in the City Press Newspaper

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