Opinionista Omphemetse S Sibanda 27 January 2020

Negative perceptions of corruption a serious threat to South Africa’s international standing

The global anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International, has made seven key recommendations that South Africa can implement to improve its standing in the corruption stakes. It's time to act on them – fast.

The release on 23 January 2020 of the 2019 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International instils little hope and confidence that inroads were made in reversing South Africa’s negative CPI of 2018. It has been such an ambivalent reaction, because several interventions came to light since the release of the 2018 CPI. 

Shamila Batohi was appointed as National Director of Public Prosecutions and Hermione Cronjé was appointed as the head of the NPA’s corruption investigative directorate in 2019. These two appointments were viewed by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola as a sign that the fight against corruption is on. Moreover, the revelations of corrupt activities of Bosasa, the company that was alleged to have contributed R500,000 to the CR17 campaign, and the evidence of possible involvement by senior politicians in state capture heard by the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture were generally seen as making inroads into tackling corruption. 

The commonality between the 2019 CPI for South Africa and the recent calls to cut short the lifespan of the Zondo Commission can be summarised as follows: “There is a perceived lack of a demonstration of the ability to prosecute grand corruption and there is a general lethargy from political parties to hold their former politicians and public officials accountable for the misuse of state resources.”

It is clear from the 2019 CPI that South Africa made no significant improvement in 2019. The country is now ranked 44, compared to the ranking of 43 in 2018. But that is not a cause for celebration because the improvement made is marginal. What this translates into is that South Africa remains among the most corrupt countries in the world. Interestingly, the 2019 CPI Report indicates that the sub-Saharan Africa region is the lowest scoring region at 32/100. This, according to Transparency International, shows “a bleak picture of inaction against corruption”. 

Year after year, State of the Nation Address (SONA) commitment after SONA commitment, South Africa is failing to shake off corruption and corrupt practices – real and perceived. Why should this be the case? What is taking the government of South Africa so long to reverse the trend? Is it perhaps that the African curse of popularity at the polls is holding us back from doing the right thing, including backsliding from our anti-corruption gains? 

South Africa is not among countries that improved since the 2018 CPI results compared, for example, to Guyana. With a score of 40/100, Guyana, the South American country formerly known as British Guiana, showed improvement. Transparency International credits the improvement of Guyana’s standing to the government’s demonstration of “political will to hold former politicians accountable for the misuse of state resources”. Can it be that the government of South Africa has been talking a lot of anti-corruption in 2019, but with the not-serious political will to hold current and former politicians accountable for corruption and for the misuse of state resources?

Perhaps we are all guilty as a society for this lack of improvement of CPI as we tend to base hope on rhetorical language and phrases such as “political will”. Linn Hammergren in her 1998 study titled Political Will, Constituency Building, and Public Support in Rule of Law Programs describes “political will” as “the slipperiest concept in the policy lexicon”, explaining in part political failures when the cause of the failures cannot be addressed, or when it becomes difficult to clearly diagnose the failure.

Efforts of investigative journalists, public advocacy against corruption and some political parties seem not to be forceful and impactful enough to help generate the necessary political energy to prosecute corruption. This sentiment was echoed by David Lewis, Corruption Watch executive director, who in relation to the 2019 CPI, stated that South Africa’s political will to prosecute corruption is still unsatisfactory. 

“The South African public has made it clear that until there is visible progress in prosecuting those responsible for corruption and until there is a visible improvement in the ability of state-owned enterprises to deliver their vital services, government’s promises to combat corruption will not be trusted,” said Lewis. 

What should be concerning to the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa is that the delay in the signing into law of the Political Party Funding Act passed in January 2019 has not been received well by institutions like Corruption Watch. The delay has been flagged as one of the reasons for the continuing perception that South Africa is not bothered by corruption within the ranks of politicians and political parties. 

“Unless there is a clear, demonstrated political will to enforce key measures and legislation regulating political party funding, as well as to hold internal party members accountable, the perception remains that the country is not doing enough,” Corruption Watch said.

The benefits of living in a state that abhors corruption and a government that is free from corruption, or the consequences of corruption, are discussed in almost every study, or discourse – political and non-political. A call is made again for South Africa to improve its CPI standing. This should be an easy effort to traverse because Transparency International has made available seven key recommendations to improve our standing as a country. 

These recommendations must be used by the state and the NPA to reinvigorate the country’s anti-corruption strategy:

  1. Reinforce checks and balances and promote separation of powers: This recommendation speaks in part to the promotion and protection of the independence of the country’s anti-corruption bodies. Also, to the temptation by the state to embrace impunity and lack of accountability for corruption and corrupt activities.
  2. Tackle preferential treatment to ensure budgets and public services aren’t driven by personal connections or biased towards special interests: Some people may argue that the starting point would be to close the corruption window of opportunity within policies and programmes related to BBBEE.
  3. Control political financing to prevent excessive money and influence in politics: The role and influence of money in politics are widely known. This calls for Ramaphosa to sign into law without any further delay the Political Party Funding Act that is gathering dust on his desk. The delay is becoming embarrassing for a country that is trying to clean its image as a home of grand corruption. Furthermore, the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption established in Maputo, Mozambique by the AU on 11 July 2003 (and in compliance with which the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act No 12 of 2004 was promulgated on 28 April 2004), calls for State Parties to adopt legislative and other measures proscribing the use of proceeds of corruption to fund political parties. The AU Convention also requires countries to put in place transparency and accounting measures in relation to the funding of political parties.
  4. Manage conflicts of interest and address “revolving doors”: This recommendation appears to be speaking without fear, or favour to the South African reality. Is the appointment of individuals to boards of SOEs with which they have business or providing services to, not a conflict of interest needing immediate termination in South Africa? Is allowing Jabu Mabuza to head the Eskom board, a situation decried by the EFF when he had 6% of shares in Sphere Investment worth R26-million, not a conflict of interest that makes him not the best person to clean Eskom of the rot? Is there merit to the assertion that favouring Portia Derby, the former wife of Brian Molefe, as chief executive at Transnet and who unceremoniously left Transnet after heading it for some time – and who is linked to the Gupta family – not raising enough red flags over conflict of interest? With regard to the “revolving door”, isn’t the musical chairs of ministers, executive public officers, and politicians with clouds of corruption hanging over them a “revolving door”’ practice that creates a perception that South Africa is not particularly interested in improving its CPI position? In addressing this recommendation, the ANC will have to deal with its cadre deployment practices, particularly when such individuals are facing allegations of corruption and related activities. So must opposition political parties. Eskom’s former CEO, Brian Molefe, is one of those infamous cases of “revolving door” under the cadre deployment practice – he had a stint as a Member of Parliament and at the same time was identified in one of the reports of former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela as having corrupt links with the Gupta family at Saxonwold. In fact, the Molefe door seemed to have revolved comfortably between Eskom and Transnet, two of the country’s embattled and corruption-prone SOEs.
  5. Regulate lobbying activities by promoting open and meaningful access to decision-making: Simply, this calls for access to information and an end to the veil of secrecy over the business of the state, unless such openness and access is against state security and classified.
  6. Strengthen electoral integrity and prevent, and sanction misinformation campaigns: Fortunately, South Africa has no serious history of electoral integrity problems. However, like in any other society, misinformation is still peddled, particularly in this era of social media.
  7. Empower citizens and protect activists, whistle-blowers and journalists: This recommendation is critical, particularly with regard to the safety and security of both whistle-blowers and investigative journalists. We may not like them particularly when they do not champion our cause, but investigative journalists play a major role in helping dispel the perception of corruption and criminality.

South Africa is fortunate to have investigative journalists with a global footprint, some of whom are also members of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, dedicated to in-depth investigative stories. 

Corruption is an impediment to the protection, promotion and enjoyment of human rights and freedoms. Until such time as South Africa improves its CPI, the country’s sterling human rights record runs the risk of being overshadowed by the negative perception of corruption. DM

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