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South Africa stagnates on the global Corruption Perception Index, but there are glimmers of hope on the horizon


Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

It is only fair to acknowledge that, under the current government, South Africa’s anti-corruption campaigns have achieved unprecedented momentum. There are good stories to tell, including closer collaboration between the National Prosecuting Authority’s Asset Forfeiture Unit and the Special Investigating Unit, as part of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy.

In anticipation of the 2022 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) report released by Transparency International on Tuesday, I expected that South Africa’s Corruption Perception score would have changed significantly. My optimism was based particularly on the monumental clean-up investigations relating to the Zondo Commission, and the first State Capture trial in the case of the Vrede Dairy Project.

The 2022 CIP report generally shows that the pandemic of corruption will linger for many years and that some countries’ CPI levels have stagnated (the scale used is that a score of 0-10 is “highly corrupt” and 90-100 “very clean”).

For three consecutive years — 2019, 2020 and 2021 — South Africa’s CPI points remained at 44. South Africa was ranked 70 in 2021. It is interesting to note that the country’s CPI point was also at 44 in 2014 and 2015. From 44 it went to 45 in 2015, and 43 points in 2012, 2017 and 2018.

Also, there were differences according to the presidencies of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. In 2022, South Africa slipped back to a score of 43, coming in at 72 out of 180 countries.

With a score below 50 on the 2022 CPI, it should be of concern to our government that corruption — or at least the world’s perception of it — is not waning. 

Not only is South Africa one of the 124 countries that have stagnant corruption levels, but it has also slipped to 2017 and 2018 levels, while the number of countries in decline is increasing.

“It is particularly galling that South Africa has slipped a point at a time when there appears to be some momentum in bringing the corrupt to book, following the findings of the Zondo Commission reports,” said Karam Singh, executive director of Corruption Watch.

What one thought were incremental improvements from a score of 43 to 44 under the promise of President Ramaphosa’s zero tolerance to corruption is now a deferred dream. 

Monumental anti-corruption efforts such as the Zondo Commission are yet to have a great impact on lessening levels of corruption in South Africa.

I might have set myself up for disappointment by expecting an improved score for a country that has gone through major corruption scandals that include the notorious arms procurement deals in the late 1990s, the rot at state-owned enterprises such as Eskom, Transnet and South African Airways, and the collusion of auditing firms like KPMG, McKinsey, Deloitte and others in enabling State Capture.

Of course, no country is completely free of corruption. 

Even Denmark, which continues to top the CPI list (tied with New Zealand) as the world’s least corrupt country in the world — followed closely by Finland and Norway — has experienced some notoriety concerning corrupt practices. 

Notable being, for example, the 2020 money-laundering scandal of 65-year-old former social worker Britta Nielsen, who, for a period of 25 years, siphoned funds meant for Denmark’s weakest citizens into a private account.

And, wait for it! These corruptly obtained funds bought, among other things, multiple lavish properties — including a ranch in South Africa.

South Africa is not doing particularly well in the CPI, and there has always been concern about the country’s enforcement of its laws against foreign bribery. It is common knowledge that South Africa has internationally comparable anti-corruption laws. The question then is: What is wrong, or what has gone wrong, and where exactly, because its CPI ranking is seeing no significant improvement almost yearly?

Many developing countries, in particular from Africa, are considered “cleaner” than industrialised countries. A glimmer of hope is that there are still African countries that are doing their best to combat corruption — countries like Botswana and Cape Verde, which are tied with Spain and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines at 60.

Perhaps South Africa went into a state of complacency after the 2021 CPI rank of 44. Even Rwanda is performing much better than South Africa, with an index of 51. 

My reading of the 2022 CPI is that South Africa continues to bear the heavy economic and social costs of corruption. It would seem that the legacies of geographical morality — and colonialism, as some may argue — are keeping us in the corruption dam. 

If we are not careful, the country might slide to the bottom and fight for positions with the most corrupt countries in the world.

As economists, politicians, journalists and other commentators dissect the 2023 CPI, it would be interesting to know if South African businesses, investors, politicians and government officials — particularly those in corruption cesspools like Eskom and Prasa — pay attention to the index and work towards the betterment of how corrupt they are perceived to be.

It would seem the CPI is failing to change the behaviour of agents of corruption, in particular when they are political and economic policymakers. It’s as if the country has resigned itself to an image and life of corruption.

Despite politicians and the government wanting the ordinary person to believe that corruption is under control and being firmly arrested, the 2022 index shows beyond any reasonable doubt that we have stagnated and that corrupt practices are like a plague in our country.

Sandholtz and Koetzle wrote that “corruption, like the poor, will probably always be with us. We can read about it in Cicero, Augustine, and almost daily in the news”. 

Law enforcement agencies, ministerial policymakers, civil society members, advocacy groups and academics have talked endlessly about corruption.

Much as I had a melancholic feeling when reading about corruption almost daily in the news — over and above the recent CPI performance of South Africa and other African countries — I still hold a firm belief that corruption does not always have to be with us.

We know the root causes of corruption. 

Unfortunately, what is becoming clear is that insignificant fortitude is shown when dealing with corrupt practices. 

Daniel Kaufman once expressed the ambivalence around corruption, stating that “nobody disputes the ethical failings associated with corruption. Yet the ambiguities about corruption, its causes, its effects and its cures cause many to wonder whether fighting it should be a true priority or merely a rhetorical one. Not in dispute is the fact that fighting corruption has become a rhetorical priority”.

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It is only fair to acknowledge that under the current ANC-led government, South Africa’s anti-corruption campaigns have achieved unprecedented momentum. There are good stories to tell, including closer collaboration between the National Prosecuting Authority’s Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) and the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), as part of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy to fight corruption.

Notable and recently reported fruits of this joint effort are the AFU and SIU obtaining a preservation order from the high court, Gauteng Division, Pretoria, to freeze three luxury properties, a plot and a portion of a farm that are linked to the theft of National Lotteries Commission grant funding meant for community development projects.

There are other significant investigations underway, such as that into allegations of corruption and maladministration in the Department of Water and Sanitation; the SIU obtaining a second preservation order in 2022 to freeze assets of a former manager of the ailing Eskom, Duduzile Moyo and her husband; the arrest of former Transnet executives Brian Molefe and Anoj Singh for alleged acts of corruption, which the government hailed as an indication that law enforcement agencies are following up on key recommendations of the Zondo Commission; the Department of Home Affairs Counter Corruption Branch, in collaboration with the Hawks and other law enforcement agencies, arresting the Home Affairs official who fraudulently issued a passport to “Lebohang from Bangladesh”; President Ramaphosa authorising the SIU to investigate allegations of corruption and maladministration in the affairs of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, and to recover any financial losses suffered by the State through corruption and negligence; and many other cases.

In 2023 we have already seen the commencement of the State Capture trial involving the controversial multimillion-rand Vrede Dairy Project, an alleged criminal activity that has the Guptas’ fingerprints all over it. As reported in Daily Maverick, it is alleged: “that more than R19-million of the R24.9-million was paid into a Gupta brothers’ offshore account”.

Fortunately for fugitives Atul and Rajesh Gupta, the trial formally got underway in the Bloemfontein high court in their absence. 

There are too many cases to mention, and big wins over recovery efforts, from scooter ambulances to Talana shacks in Limpopo, the nauseating allegations of corruption and maladministration at the Road Accident Fund, and dodgy lottery grants at the expense of the poor by wannabe wealth magnets (See also, for example, here, here, here, and here).

The face-value observation is that the government has been busy fighting corrupt activities and divesting allegedly corrupt individuals or companies of the proceeds of crime.

In my view, however, this momentum is a rhetorical success. The big question should be: do the international indexes on corruption perception levels matter in South Africa? And should South Africa do something about it?

My answer to both questions will be positive. Results of an empirical study in the Budapest International Research and Critics Institute Journal “showed that the CPI had a positive and significant effect on the development of the quality of human life both directly and through economic conditions (GNI per capita)”.

The CPI points to the importance of improving perceptions of corruption. Clean and good governance fosters a sense of fairness and trust by the public in the government of the day. Thus, the CPI should nudge the country to deal with public sector corruption decisively.

The effects of public sector corruption are far-reaching and can be devastating. Among other things, it affects economic and financial outcomes such as GDP growth and foreign direct investment. Thus, the spillovers from perceptions of public sector corruption should never be underestimated by nonchalantly dismissing international indexes on corruption perception.

As noted by the Constitutional Court in National Director of Public Prosecutions v Botha 2020 (1) SACR 599 (CC), “corruption affects us all. It intersects at points of social, political, economic and ethical discourse with no end in sight and thus remains an elusive malignancy slowly eroding our hard-won democracy…”

Where there is corruption, human rights are casualties. 

This was confirmed by the European Parliament in its recommendation of 17 February 2022 to the Council and Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, noting among others that corruption facilitates, perpetuates and institutionalises human rights violations and hinders the observance and implementation of human rights.

Interestingly, the parliament called for support for civil society, journalists and human rights defenders by designing programmes to “provide more financial support to independent media, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists… working on preventing and exposing corruption, advancing transparency and accountability, including support against strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapp suits).”

Interestingly, President Ramaphosa said on Monday that we need to mobilise society to fight crime. I could not agree more that civil society ought to play a greater role in taming the beast of corruption.

We can mobilise society to help fight corruption to improve South Africa’s CPI performance in 2023, but our leaders also need to do their part. 

Our parliamentarians must be role models for the anti-corruption crusade, since in democracies, parliaments should be at the forefront of curbing corruption by fulfilling their oversight responsibilities and holding the government accountable.

I am saying this, assuming that our parliamentarians understand and appreciate their oversight roles.

President Ramaphosa will on 9 February deliver the State of the Nation Address (Sona). One hopes that we will not hear the same story about anti-corruption efforts that are yet to be operationalised, or anti-corruption plans touted like pie in the sky.

Nobody wants to infinitely hear the same old narratives that the government is getting tough on corruption and has passed this and that piece of legislation aimed at fighting corruption and is prosecuting corrupt individuals. So many times it’s been stated in the Sona that our government has declared war on corruption and taken concrete steps to minimise its prevalence.

For the 2023 Sona, we need to hear about how the war against corruption has been practicalised and a report card with tangible successes should be read out to the public.

Delia Ferreira Rubio, Chair of Transparency International, wrote that “corruption has made our world a more dangerous place. As governments have collectively failed to make progress against it, they fuel the current rise in violence and conflict — and endanger people everywhere. The only way out is for states to do the hard work, rooting out corruption at all levels to ensure governments work for all people, not just an elite few”.

And Karam Singh observes that “it is hardly comforting that we have leaders paying lip service to the anti-corruption agenda in an environment that is not just hostile, but extremely dangerous for whistle-blowers and those activists seeking to address the huge inequality and injustices wrought by corruption.” DM


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