JOHANNESBURG — A 25-year-old Johannesburg secretary said she was angered, not frightened, when police threatened her and her fiance and demanded money after a traffic stop. Thursday, she was hailed as a hero for standing up to the police, and for going to the Internet with her story.
"People need to end this," Tebogo Sehlabane said Thursday at the launch of Corruption Watch, an independent organization that will use the Web and social media to gather and publicize information about corruption by officials in South Africa. The organization also plans to hand evidence of crimes over to authorities.
Whistle-blowers are encouraged to submit information anonymously online to the new Corruption Watch site and cell phone message hotline. The effort, funded by charitable donations, is the brainchild of the trade union coalition, COSATU which is allied with the governing African National Congress.
The coalition 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.
Corruption Watch organizers invited Sehlabane to attend the launch Thursday as an example of the kind of ordinary courage they say South Africa needs to fight a growing problem.
Corruption Watch's board of directors includes the country's 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.
Sehlabane sat at the front table along with the justice minister and the COSATU chief as her story was related. She had been riding with her fiance last year through inner-city Johannesburg when he was stopped for talking on his cell phone while driving. She said her fiance was willing to be ticketed and pay the fine of 500 rand (about $60), but police took his driver's license and intimidated him into handing over 1,500 rand (about $200).
Corruption Watch wasn't set up at the time, but Sehlabane posted her story on a community Web site. And her fiance went to court to force police to pay back the 1,500 rand — a detail that earned applause Thursday.
"It's people who don't report this that let it go on," Sehlabane said later in an interview.
Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of COSATU, said the worst aspect of corruption in South Africa was that it is "becoming literally a matter of life and death, as people are being intimidated or even killed for exposing and preventing corruption."
ANC leaders say they take the fight against corruption seriously. But they have been accused of acting slowly and protecting tainted but loyal members.
A top ANC leader, justice minister Jeff Radebe, addressed the audience at the Corruption Watch event Thursday, calling corruption a "cancer." He was the first to sign a pledge Corruption Watch is circulating calling on South Africans to refuse to give or receive bribes or to abuse public money or office.
Ben Elers of the global watchdog Transparency International 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. He said such campaigns give ordinary citizens a change to speak out about corruption and assert their rights.
Elers said, however, that South Africans should be ready for an onslaught on online whistle-blowing. 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.
"People will become involved when there are simple, viable mechanisms for them to do so," he said
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. And the main opposition Democratic Alliance, slowly making inroads in the ANC's huge majority, has highlighted the corruption issue.
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela on Thursday welcomed help from Corruption Watch and called on all South Africans to support it.
Transparency International, which surveys business people and experts on the ground to determine the extent to which a country is perceived as corrupt, ranked South Africa the 64th worst of 183 countries and territories in 2011, down from 54 of 178 the previous year.
A separate Transparency survey of the general public in South Africa in 2010 found 62 percent believed corruption had worsened over the three previous years.
Last year, following months of calls for him to act, President Jacob Zuma went on national television to announce he was suspending his national police chief and firing 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.
"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."
He said the costs of corruption go beyond the cost of bribes, to affecting public confidence in the government and deterring foreign investors and local entrepreneurs.
Donna Bryson can be reached on http://twitter.com/dbrysonAP