Anti-corruption movement Transparency International (TI) today released the 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which paints a bleak picture of South Africa’s progress. Dropping below the global average, the country has lost a further two points since last year on the leading global index measuring perceptions of public sector corruption around the world.

Since Corruption Watch (CW), Transparency International’s local chapter, started tracking its progress on the index 12 years ago, South Africa has never scored as low as 41 – until now. This score is a decline from the previous low of 42 in 2013, and two points below its maiden score of 43 in 2012. It is one of 23 countries that reached their lowest ever scores this year, stumbling into the category of flawed democracies.

The CPI scores 180 countries and territories around the world by their perceived levels of public-sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople. It relies on 13 independent data sources and uses a scale of zero to 100, where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.

Countries with strong rule of law and well-functioning democratic institutions often sit at the top of the index. Democratic countries tend to greatly outperform authoritarian regimes when controlling corruption – full democracies have a CPI average of 73, flawed democracies have an average of 48, and non-democratic regimes just 32.

It is important to note that the CPI measures perceptions of corruption, and not corruption reported or experienced by members of the public. In this regard, perceptions may differ from the current reality in South Africa, where there has been some apparent forward momentum in curbing and combating corruption.

Read the report below, or download it.

Most CPI countries below global average

The 2023 report raises the alarm of the apparent inability of governments around the world to stop the spread of corruption. In the 20 years since the adoption of the UN Convention against Corruption, 190 countries have united under it to stop corruption. However, they are largely failing to achieve this – over 80% of the world’s population lives in countries with CPI scores below the global average of 43.

There is nothing to celebrate as South Africa now joins those countries in the world where corruption seems not only entrenched, but able to thrive. The global trend of weakening justice systems, according to the Rule of Law Index which is referenced by TI in this year’s report and highlighted as a challenge experienced by every region on the index, creates an environment of impunity for and reduced accountability of public officials involved in corruption.

“It is frustrating that, in a country like South Africa, where the corrupt have been exposed for all to see in such public processes as the Zondo Commission and robust media investigations, so few of the implicated parties have been brought to justice,” says Karam Singh, executive director of CW. “There is an urgency to our problem of corruption, as citizens witness the unravelling of cities and infrastructure because of years of impunity and state capture. With elections looming in a few months, the need for accountable leaders of integrity could not be more critical,” he adds.

It is significant that in 2024 South Africa marks 30 years since the end of apartheid and the establishment of a new democratic dispensation. Despite this milestone, and the expectation that systems would be overhauled and corruption would disappear, South Africa’s score has declined on the CPI over the past five years. The failure of law enforcement agencies to bring many of the corrupt to account and to strengthen the rule of law and channels of justice, means that many people living in South Africa have yet to experience the freedom that they were so extravagantly promised.

South Africa, at 41, sits alongside Burkina Faso, Kosovo, and Vietnam on the global index, and comes in at joint 11th with Burkina Faso on the regional table of sub-Saharan Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa

This year’s CPI shows mixed results in Africa, with significant improvements in a few countries. However, most African countries experienced stagnation, maintaining the region’s consistently poor performance, with an unaltered regional average score of 33 out of 100 – again the lowest performing region on the CPI. Ninety percent of countries in sub-Saharan Africa scored under 50.

The region’s persistent challenges stem from decades of severe underfunding in public sectors, exacerbated by corruption and illicit financial flows siphoning resources away from basic public services. These trends only serve to deepen inequality and social injustice, affecting the most vulnerable, who are denied access to justice.

The top scorers in the region continue to be Seychelles with a score of 71, Cabo Verde at 64, and Botswana at 59 – the latter two have exchanged places this year. Equatorial Guinea (17), South Sudan (13), and Somalia (11) score the lowest.

South Africa with 41, Gabon with 28, and Liberia with 25 are the sub-Saharan countries that have displayed new minimum scores.

Investment in law enforcement and judicial institutions

The 2023 CPI shows that, despite the progress made in criminalising corruption and establishing specialised anti-corruption institutions around the world, only 28 of the 180 countries measured have improved their corruption levels, and 34 countries have significantly worsened.

Among the principal criteria for keeping corruption in check are independent, transparent, and well-resourced law enforcement agencies and judiciaries, and preventing the abuse of political power, bribery, and other forms of influence. This is a strong message for the many countries holding elections in 2024.

The fight for justice and the fight against corruption go hand in hand: where the justice system is unable to uphold the rule of law, corruption thrives. At the same time, where corruption is the norm, access to justice is often hindered for the most vulnerable, and justice institutions may be captured by political, economic, or special interest groups.

“In an increasingly polarised world, where disinformation governs the narrative, and those with power, whether countries, politicians or business leaders, control that messaging, what we need is a return to justice,” says Singh.

In South Africa, the narrative is rather an appalling tale of rising inequality and injustice over 30 years, against a backdrop of climate change, conflict, and the abuse of basic human rights. “We need a new order, a new drive to remove corruption from our landscape,” Singh concludes.

With the State of the Nation and budget speeches coming soon in the parliamentary calendar, one of the key things we look for is the extent to which we see progress in ensuring the democratic independence of key institutions such as the NPA. Ensuring the structural and operational independence of the NPA is critical to ensuring the fight against corruption and future proofing the system against future state capture.

Along with this independence is the need to ensure that there is appropriate funding for the criminal justice system, including the NPA, to carry forth the implementation of Zondo commission recommendations and ensure that the capacity of the key institutions is bolstered to ensure the successful prosecution of state capture cases.

Access the 2023 CPI here

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Since its inception in 1995, the Corruption Perceptions Index has become the leading global indicator of public sector corruption. The index scores 180 countries and territories around the world based on perceptions of public sector corruption, using data from 13 external sources, including the World Bank, World Economic Forum, private risk and consulting companies, think tanks, and others. The scores reflect the views of experts and business people, not the public.

The process for calculating the CPI is regularly reviewed to make sure it is as robust and coherent as possible, most recently by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in 2017. The CPI scores from 2012 onwards can be reliably compared year by year. For more information, see this article: The ABCs of the CPI: How the Corruption Perceptions Index is calculated.