JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African anti-graft activists took to the Internet Thursday with a labor-backed campaign that aims to shame corrupt officials.
Whistle-blowers are encouraged to submit information anonymously online to the new Corruption Watch site and cellphone message hotline. The independent organization, headed by a former director of the country's anti-monopoly commission, will gather and publicize information about official corruption and hand evidence to authorities.
The effort funded by charitable donations is the brainchild of COSATU. The trade union coalition, which is allied with the governing African National Congress, has repeatedly pressed the ANC to clean up government, saying corruption is draining the country of funds that could be used to build schools and hospitals and create jobs.
ANC leaders say they take the fight against corruption seriously but have been accused of acting slowly and protecting tainted but loyal members. Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, speaking at the launching of Corruption Watch, called corruption a "cancer."
Corruption Watch's board of directors includes an Anglican archbishop and a former Constitutional Court judge. Thursday's announcement drew a crowd of political luminaries to a hall in a historic jail that has been converted into a community center. Parts were broadcast live on national TV.
It "will help to build a climate in which every South African is playing a part in isolating and shaming the culprits," COSATU said in a statement. "It will help to establish a tradition that those caught ... will voluntarily resign, shamed by the weight of public disapproval, rather than defiantly remaining in office while the evidence against them mounts up."
The forums may be used to make false claims to settle scores or seek advantage, so verifying information is important, its supporters say. Elers said activists behind similar projects around the world have worked with government investigators and journalists to ensure the campaigns are credible and lead to action.
Ben Elers of the global watchdog Transparency International said Internet and other campaigns give ordinary citizens a chance to speak out about corruption and assert their rights. When Transparency opened a telephone hotline in central Europe several years ago, it was so overwhelmed by callers it had to suspend the service for a week to regroup.
That kind of response, Elers said, shows that far from being apathetic about corruption, "people will become involved when there are simple, viable mechanisms for them to do so."
South Africa already has a public protector, an independent investigator who has been lauded for her vigorous pursuit of corruption in high places. The country's media also is aggressive in reporting on corruption.
Steven Friedman, director of South Africa's Centre for the Study of Democracy, welcomed Corruption Watch but also called for a broader approach, saying the business people who bribe greedy politicians also are responsible for corruption.
In its corruption index, Transparency International ranked South Africa 64th worst of 183 countries and territories in 2011, down from 54 of 178 the previous year.
A separate survey of the general public in South Africa in 2010 found 62 percent believed corruption has worsened over the three previous years.
"Corruption is still quite a persistent problem" in South Africa, said Finn Heinrich, Transparency's research director. "Corruption is still very, very widespread, if not increasing."
Last year, President Jacob Zuma suspended the national police chief and fired a Cabinet minister caught up in a scandal over leasing police headquarters buildings. Zuma also fired another Cabinet minister who an independent investigator said used taxpayer money to live extravagantly.
Donna Bryson can be reached on http://twitter.com/dbrysonAP