Why is corruption getting worse in South Africa?

The involvement of the political elite in corruption is the single biggest challenge to tackling the issue.

As the world remembers the passing of global icon Nelson Mandela, the fact that he was a man of principle is a clear element of his success as a leader and overall greatness. He understood the vital importance of the constitutional principles of accountability and the rule of law. He not only said as much, but also demonstrated the courage of his convictions by submitting himself before the courts when summoned to defend his decision to set up a commission to investigate alleged racism, corruption and nepotism in South African rugby.

It is therefore saddening to see how far some in the ruling elite have strayed from the example set by this great man. An important barometer of the extent of this problem is growing public sector corruption, whereby public funds are being diverted away from the public good towards private interests. Of course private sector corruption is also a problem, but until we get a handle on corruption in government, private sector corruption will continue to flourish.

South Africans certainly think that public sector corruption is getting worse. Transparency International’s (TI) 2013 global Corruption Perception Index (CPI) shows that South Africa has dropped 34 places since 2001, with half the decline of 17 places occurring since 2009. South Africa is currently ranked at number 72 out of 175 countries and heading downwards.

The Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) annual South African Social Attitudes Survey shows the proportion of people who think that tackling corruption should be a national priority almost doubling, from 14% to 26% in the five-year period between 2006 and 2011.

This trend is supported by the latest 2013 Afrobarometer report, ‘Governments falter in fight to curb corruption’, released on 13 November 2013. The report, based on surveys of 51 000 people in 34 African countries, shows that South Africa is one of the countries where there is a notable increase in public perceptions that corruption is getting worse, particularly since 2008. This is in contrast with countries such as Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal and Zambia, where people believe that their governments are making gains in curbing public sector corruption.

Interestingly, South Africa is better placed than many other African countries to tackle this problem. There are 13 public sector agencies that have a particular legal or policy role to play in combatting graft. Moreover, a number of national mechanisms – such as the National Anti-Corruption Task Team – have been established to coordinate the functions of these agencies. South Africa also has dedicated policies, standards and legislation specifically designed to enable the state to tackle corruption through both criminal and civil action.

The question then becomes, why, with all these resources available to tackle corruption, do South Africans perceive the government to be failing in this regard. For example, Afrobarometer has found that on average a little over half (56%) of people on the African continent thought that their governments were doing a poor job in ‘their efforts to fight corruption’. However, South Africa performed notably worse than the average, with two out of three citizens (66%) believing the government to be performing poorly in combatting graft.

Importantly, these opinions are not held because South Africans are regularly confronted with public sector corruption. In fact, the 2013 Afrobarometer report shows that South Africa was ranked fifth lowest among African countries when it came to citizens having direct experiences of paying a bribe for public services. Only 15% of South Africans said that they had paid a bribe in the previous year compared with an average of 30% of Africans who had paid a bribe. The worst performer was Sierra Leone, where 63% said that they had paid a bribe. So why do South Africans have such negative perceptions of corruption?

Arguably, it is because although most people are not expected to pay a bribe to access a public service, the public are aware that politicians and public officials divert public funds away from service delivery into their back pockets. In 2011 the former head of the Special Investigation Unit, Willie Hofmeyer, reported before parliament that between R25 billion and R30 billion was lost to the government procurement budget each year due to this type of fraud. Moreover, there is evidence that incidents of corruption are increasing. A report by Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, based on documented fraud and malfeasance cases presented to parliament and contained in Public Service Commission reports, found that the amount involved increased from R130 million in 2006/07 to over R1 billion in 2011/12.

So there is evidence that the heart of the problem lies in the lack of accountability for maladministration and corruption. Corruption Watch states that this problem starts with the President – while there are various efforts by the government to tackle corruption, ‘these actions were countered by the continuing impunity on the part of those who were politically and financially powerful’. In particular, it was explained that the ‘Gupta wedding saga and on-going fiasco surrounding the President’s private Nkandla residence are indicators in the past year of impunity in operation’. Little symbolises the nature of our public sector corruption challenge better than the scandal of R215 million of public money being diverted away from the public good to upgrade President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead.

It is therefore not surprising that research data supports the argument that corruption committed by politicians and government officials is driving negative public perceptions of corruption in South Africa.

According to the 2013 Afrobarometer Survey, perceptions of the office of the President being corrupt more than doubled, from a low of 13% in 2002 to 35% in 2011. This finding is backed up by the latest Future Fact Survey released last week that showed ‘a massive slide in trust and confidence in President Zuma to a current score of 37 from a high of 257 five years ago’.

President Zuma is not solely responsible for all corruption in the public sector, but he certainly has stymied any progress that could have been made in this regard. In addition to his own shady dealings with people like convicted fraudster Shabir Shaik, he has repeatedly appointed people of low ethical standards to key positions in cabinet and the criminal justice system. As a result, citizens are less trusting of their national leaders. This is reflected in the recently released 2013 South African Reconciliation Barometer survey undertaken by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). This survey revealed that since 2012 there has been a 10,8% decrease in citizens' confidence in national government. There has also been a 13% increase in the proportion of citizens who feel that government does not care about ‘people like them’.

This can partly be explained by the sad reality that some in the ruling elite have jettisoned principle for political power (see ‘The danger of sacrificing principle at the altar of greater power’). In order to truly honour Mandela, it is now up to those men and women of principle in the ANC and the broader alliance to step forward and start taking to task those who besmirch his proud legacy. There is no moral justification for the spending on Nkandla and the unethical behaviour of some of our cabinet ministers. Rather than trying to justify the indefensible or attacking important institutions such as the Public Protector, the ANC now needs to be at the forefront of holding its leaders to account for corruption and maladministration. Failing to do so will not only undermine Mandela’s proud legacy, but will also further damage South Africa’s prospects of solving its most pressing problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Gareth Newham, Head of the Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

Media coverage of this ISS Today:

Cape Argus

Related content