Political leaders should undergo lifestyle audits to clear suspicions about their wealth, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said on Thursday.
"[This is so] we leave no doubt in the minds of our people who are increasingly suspicious of everybody that seems to be driving a better car ..." he told delegates at an anti-corruption summit in Johannesburg.
Vavi welcomed lifestyle audits being carried out by the SA Revenue Service into the sources of wealth of some individuals.
Among those being investigated is suspended ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.
"We are happy that SARS is investigating those suspected of dodging their tax responsibilities or who have wealth that they can't explain," Vavi said.
"These are valuable weapons needed to identify and prosecute those involved in corruption."
Corruption had become endemic in South Africa and the misappropriation of state resources had reached alarming proportions, the unionist told his audience.
Delegates heard that government departments were not enforcing laws and officials were exploiting gaps in the system to win government tenders.
"Public servants are supposed to be caring for the public but instead they are caring for their own narrow financial interests," said Vavi.
"We are facing a nightmare, a nightmare future for South Africa which is up for auction to the highest bidder."
Vavi said factions were being formed not for ideologies or political views, but for access to government power.
"Honest and talented individuals who cannot play this dirty game of survival of the fittest get sidelined."
The summit heard that South Africa could not defeat corruption and abuse of power with weak organisations.
It needed a strong, vibrant and active ruling African National Congress along with independent state institutions.
It also needed a diversified, robust, pro-poor and religious media.
Vavi said the Protection of State Information Bill would deter whistleblowers from reporting crimes, making it easier to conceal corruption in the government.
Those reporting corruption faced jail time, while those committing it would "roam the streets".
The bill criminalises possession and publication of classified information with sanctions of up to 25 years in prison.
It was drafted to replace apartheid-era legislation dating from 1982, but critics say it marks a return to excessive state secrecy less than two decades into democracy.
Vavi, who was recently appointed a board member of the parastatal Industrial Development Corporation, expressed support for the establishment of an anti-corruption task team by President Jacob Zuma into expensive hotel stays by ministers and government officials.
He told delegates that tender processes needed to be transparent and that public servants needed to be held accountable for wrongdoing.
Corruption was the elite's way of stealing from the poor, said Vavi,.
"It has become a matter of life and death. Corruption is the biggest threat to the realisation of our dreams... Self-enrichment will unravel the fabric of society."
If the current economic system of capitalism continued with the "me first" mentality, it would be difficult to root out corruption, he said.
Earlier, National Anti-Corruption Forum chairwoman Futhi Mtoba said 1273 public service officials were charged with misconduct for corrupt activities between September 2004 and June 2011.
During this time, 603 officials were dismissed from the public service, 226 were suspended, 134 were fined and 16 demoted. Another 330 officials were given final written warnings and 190 prosecuted.