By Wendy Trott

Lifting the lid on economic crimes

Why We Invested: Open Secrets

Over the last few years, South Africa has been made painfully aware of the economic and social consequences of corruption. In 2018 Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index assigned South Africa an index of 43 out of 100, ranking them 73 out of 180 countries (those with an index of less than 50 are considered to have serious corruption problems).  But few people are able to truly understand the complex systems that enable corruption and that divert public funds from development and poverty reduction. It requires a deep comprehension not only of the inner workings of government, but also of the oft-ignored enablers of the system: the private sector. The auditors, bankers, lawyers and accountants who either turn a blind eye or willingly enable public funds to be siphoned away to tax havens and luxury houses.

Open Secrets is a non-profit organisation that works to address this gap by exposing private sector economic crimes and building accountability for those responsible through investigative research, advocacy, and litigation. They do the complex work of digging deep in order to reveal the truth about economic crimes - such as corruption, fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, and tackle structural impunity in such a way that is inclusive and accessible to the average person. Open Secrets investigations combine sophisticated historical reviews of the events that shaped current society with real-world research on the human effects of economic crimes. For example, their investigation into the illegal arms trade during apartheid made the link between sanctions-busting in the 1970s to 1990s and the South African people who were affected by apartheid-era violence and crimes. It also made the argument for how these events created the persisting structures that make state capture possible in the present day. As, Hennie van Vuuren, director of Open Secrets, puts it, “in the absence of accountability, corrupt networks of the past stay in business. Rather than face justice, they invite members of the new elite to the table.”

Open Secrets does three particularly unique things:

  • They go where it’s hard, and where no one else is working. It took more than 20 years for some of the findings from their ‘apartheid guns and money’ investigation to be brought to light because of the dearth of organisations focusing on private sector complicity in corruption, and the complexity of the issues they were researching.
  • They drive their investigations with the ultimate goal of achieving justice and damages for the victims of the crimes - the individuals who suffered human rights abuses and economic deprivation as a result of economic crime. For example, they have an ongoing complaint at the OECD on behalf of victims of apartheid about the behaviour of banks who facilitated the apartheid arms trade in violation of international sanctions.
  • They bring coalitions together in the struggle for change, including affected communities, other civil society organisations, investigative journalists, and lawyers who can litigate to hold companies accountable. They are also pioneering a unique form of public accountability in partnership with a host of other organisations called the ‘People’s Tribunal on Economic Crime.’ Explicitly organised by the people rather than the state, a People’s Tribunal, in the model of those held for crimes against humanity in other regions, aims to convene members of the public, experts and civil society to submit and hear evidence on economic crimes and their impacts. 

As an organisation that cares not only about accountability by those in power, but also about empowering people to participate and hold decision-makers responsible for the decisions that affect their lives, Luminate is proud to support Open Secrets. We are therefore pleased to announce a grant of $185,000 over a period of two years to enable Open Secrets to continue their investigations in holding power - in all its forms – to account.