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An anatomy of public corruption: Is there a fault in our analysis?


Dr Kaymarlin Govender is research director at HEARD, University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is a member of faculty at the College of Law and Management Sciences. He leads an NRF-STINT partnership with the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, on research and postgraduate education on social determinants of HIV in East and southern Africa.

Understanding the inner workings of systemic corruption is a central requirement of change, even though solutions may not be readily apparent.

The 2018 ACT report by Corruption Watch is an agonising read as corruption reaches endemic levels at public and private institutions. Bribery, procurement irregularities, embezzlement of funds and theft of resources were up from 2017.

The report makes it blatantly clear that corruption — the abuse of entrusted power for private gain — is corroding our schools, municipalities, licencing centres, state-owned enterprises and the health sector.

This narrative continues unabated with almost weekly revelations of political leadership implicated in mismanagement of resources, the looting of public assets, with unashamed rationalisations for self-interest and greed (the collapse of VBS Mutual Bank being the latest scandal, as a parliamentary probe on the issue is launched).

While the reports, newsblogs and public comment leave one disheartened at the tragic state of South Africa’s public institutions, the cancer of corruption is in fact more insidious; it is becoming a normal way of life for South Africans.

We are no longer shaken by the dastardly behaviour of public administrators, captains of industry and political leaders. Corruption, like a cancer, is a chronic and unwavering condition of living in South Africa.

Yet the fight against corruption is not unique to South Africa. The international anti-corruption agenda has had more visibility in recent times, with corruption being seen as one of the biggest impediments to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This is echoed in the words of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres:

We can only achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development if every nation has strong, transparent and inclusive institutions, based on the rule of law and supported by the public” (November, 2017) .

A 2015 Transparency International report indicates that most Africans (58%) say that corruption has increased over the past year. This is particularly the case in South Africa, where more than four in five citizens (83%) say they have seen corruption rise recently, with most governments failing in the fight against corruption.

In countries such as South Africa, where anti-corruption laws with legal-institutional frameworks are in place, the gap between policy and implementation is large, with a struggle to translate these laws into practice. Programme implementation is part of the problem, however, not the only issue.

Corruption depends on how the practice is framed. Traditional perspectives on corruption frame the abuse of power by a principal (public official) who engages with an actor/s, where both parties believe in interest-orientated programmes taking priority over nation orientated programmes. This dualist model applies in most instances. However, when corruption is not the exception to the rule, but the rule, the dualism is may no longer tenable.

Once corruption is systematically embedded in institutional structures and process, dismantling these intricacies needs to go further than institutional processes.

It also requires a strong political will from the leadership and an active citizenry. Quite the contrary, when the corrupt practices are endemic, the body politic may, in many instances, passively support the corrupt system.

Corruption becomes the “new normal”. In fact anticorruption efforts seem to ultimately become entangled in the very corrupt networks that they were meant to fight (the recent resignation of Finance Minister Nene is a case in point).

Why is this so? A major part of the issue resides with the “collective action” problem, or lack thereof.

While one cannot question the relevance of effective monitoring, accountability and punishment regimes as a means to curb corruption, one should interrogate the assumption held in modern democracies that at least one group of actors (principals) is in fact willing to enforce ethical regimes on its citizenry. This assumption was not borne out under the previous political leadership in South Africa (ANC and other political parties to an extent).

When there is a vacuum in moral and ethical leadership, democratic processes begin to fold in on themselves. A complete breakdown in South Africa’s case was adverted because of an active body politic (which President Cyril Ramaphosa praises in its role to uncover State capture, a free press and an independent judiciary.

Even so, networks of corrupt politicians wrecked havoc on reconstruction and development efforts, not to mention the intolerable damage to institutions and peoples’ careers (for example, the Sunday Times fake news fallout).

Systemic corruption is not a feature of political elites alone. It circulates within political networks and networks of patronage where leaders enforce forms of privilege and are also subjected to scripted performances within the policing gaze of corrupt others.

The rewards of corruption and mutually reinforcing processes of normalisation (embedding corruption in structures and processes, using self-serving ideologies and socialisation of newcomers) is ultimately dependent on perceptions regarding the normative condition — one’s expectations regarding the corruptibility of the majority in society, with ideals of morality, service and honestly being regarded as anachronistic.

If the rot is deep and pervasive enough in a corrupt setting, then the short-term cost of being honest is comparatively high, since this will not change the game.

Consequently, there are failures on implementation of anti-corruption measures because no one sees an incentive in holding corrupt citizens accountable. At an individual level there are costs associated with acting fairly (stigmatisation, isolation, coercion and violence) and also benefits of acting corruptly (the closer one is to the top of the hierarchy, the larger the dividends for engaging in corrupt practices).

My point is that the cultural consent of the collective cultivates and maintains networks of corruption with tangible benefits and indirect, usually affiliative benefits.

One could argue that we then need to “fix the incentives” to reduce corruption — making it more costly to engage in corrupt practices through stronger institutional processes.

Calling for better public officials, better information, less official discretion and higher economic and social punishments is well and good. But this will fall on deaf ears, or regurgitated as forms of political rhetoric or clever sloganeering if genuine leadership is lacking.

Getting out of the corruption trap is not so easy. It is an intractable problem. Crawling out of the trap requires a radical shift, a revolutionary type of approach, where all major political, economic and social institutions invest in change.

The game changer is simultaneously to make advances in both formal and non-formal mechanisms of control. Making institutional processes more transparent and accountable with formal sanctioning mechanisms is obligatory.

Further, strengthening civil society representation is important for credible political leadership. However, non-formal acts of ethical leadership (theory and action) such as showing a genuine concern for the public moral good, a consistency between words and deeds, is key to this process.

One could argue that trust in new leadership cannot be hastened. It needs to be earned through progressive steps. An equally compelling argument is that change cannot occur without shedding light on the dark field of corruption.

It requires an intensive gaze on the banalities of corrupt practices through authentic processes (commissions of inquiry, integrity commissions, parliamentary oversight processes).

For the utilitarian thinker, the cumbersome and lengthy practices of these “cleansing processes” may be questionable. Still, political and social change (a recalibration of the system) has to be premised on a meaningful and genuine start.

Insights into the inner workings of systemic corruption are a central requirement of change, even though solutions may not be readily apparent. DM


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