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By David Lewis
First published in The Star

Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) released on Wednesday, scores South Africa at 45 out of 100, a minuscule improvement on our 2015 score of 44.

Our ranking has declined from 61 of 168 countries in 2015 to 64 of 176 countries in 2016.

Of the sub-Saharan African countries in the index, this places us in a tie with Senegal for seventh place behind Botswana, Cape Verde, Rwanda, Mauritius, Namibia and São Tome and Principe.

The good news is our score and ranking have not moved significantly downward, although it is important to know that the timing of the survey means the impact of seminal 2016 corruption episodes – for example, the shocking State of Capture report – have not yet influenced the perceptions recorded in this survey. Had this been so, our score and ranking may well have declined.

The bad news is that our score of below 50 means we remain in the category of those countries deemed to have a serious corruption problem.

And a glance at those countries below us tells us a further decline is into a hell that no one in their right mind would want to descend to. So while the outcome of the survey should not inspire outright despair, we remain in a precarious position, poised on the edge of a cliff, if not yet in a free-fall to hell.

Let’s first dispel one hoary old canard corruption denialists invoke every year: that the CPI records are “merely perceptions” and not “reality”. It is impossible to measure actual levels of corruption. Unlike other crimes in which there is a clear perpetrator and a clear victim, most corrupt conduct, especially procurement corruption, implicates two or more parties, all of whom are guilty of criminal conduct.

The odds, then, of any of the parties reporting corruption are slender. The upshot is the crime of corruption will inevitably be under-reported and so perception is a better measure of corruption than “reality”.

This is why it’s so important to encourage whistle-blowing. Whistle-blowers are the true heroes in the fight against corruption. Nor should “perception” be lightly dismissed.

Anyone whose only contact with a public servant takes the form of a traffic officer or a driver licensing facility or an official responsible for allocating housing, is entitled to conclude the public sector is corrupt. And this perception is reinforced by the persistent reports of grand corruption at the highest levels of government.

It is these perceptions that underpin deep mistrust in public-sector officials and in elected representatives and politics in general. Our concrete experience tells us these perceptions of wholesale corruption account for shockingly low levels of youth participation in local government elections and parental participation in school-governing body elections.

For evidence of mistrust in public officials and elected representatives one need look no further than the rise of service delivery protests and vigilantism. If there is reason to suspect your local councillor is complicit in corruption or your local police station is in cahoots with the drug dealers, what alternative is there to taking the law into your own hands? Why would you pay your taxes if it is widely perceived that an agency like Sars is riddled with corruption?

The truly interesting question arising out of the CPI is why, in the face of rampant petty corruption and persistent evidence of grand corruption, our score and our ranking is not lower than it is?

The answer lies in the outrage expressed by the people of South Africa and the positive impact that this is having on political and business leaders and institutions.

Those who perceive that South Africa is on a tipping point, on the edge of a cliff, can take comfort in the equally clear evidence of resistance to corruption. Whether the evidence is in the 100 whistle-blowing reports Corruption Watch receives each week, or in the clear rejection of corruption expressed at the local government polls, it is clear South Africans have not resigned themselves to corruption as an inevitable way of life.

If we do get to that point, we will certainly fall over the cliff edge, but we are clearly not there yet.

As important, it is not only the ordinary residents and voters of South Africa who are expressing their opposition to corruption.

Think of the minister of finance. Think of the cabinet ministers and other leaders who took on the ruling clique at the recent national executive committee of the ANC. Think of the few provincial premiers and city mayors who have not only spoken out against corruption, but who by their actions are clearly walking the talk. Think of the robust political opposition. Think of the independent media.

Think of the corporate chief executives who joined the thousands of ordinary South Africans protesting against the clear evidence of corruption in the National Prosecuting Authority when it attempted to pursue spurious, politically driven charges against the minister of finance.

All of this demonstrates the power and importance of publicly expressed outrage at corruption. And it is this that halts our slide downwards in the corruption indices. It accounts for the perception that, although we may still have a serious corruption problem, the good guys are in the ascendant.

But it is equally important to recognise that while the bad guys may be down, they’re far from out.

Now is not the time to relax our vigilance or put away our whistles. While the CPI measures perceptions of the public sector only, this should not induce complacency in the private sector. Other surveys demonstrate the public has an equally jaundiced view of the private sector.

If the private sector is to alter this perception, it is not enough to get its own houses in order; it has to make common cause with the people of South Africa. This is not a natural alliance, but nor was the broadly based alliance that ultimately defeated apartheid. One comparison which stands us in relatively good stead is with our Brics partners.

With China, India and Brazil all ranked at 79 and scoring 40, and Russia ranked a dismal 131 with a score of 29, anyone could be forgiven for thinking what we really have in common with our so-called partners is that we are all firmly in the ranks of those countries with a serious corruption problem.

But take note of Russia, in particular, strongly rumoured to be our favoured partner in the proposed multibillion-rand acquisition of nuclear power capacity. If there are solid scientific and economic grounds for rejecting nuclear altogether, then there are unimpeachable corruption grounds for steering well clear of Russian service providers and their government.

This is not to say the other potential suppliers are angels. They are not and, if the ill-considered nuclear procurement does go through, all should be vigilantly scrutinised. But Russia is in a league of its own. By your friends shall you be known.

And if Russian companies are chosen to supply our energy requirements, then we and the rest of the world are entitled to infer that corruption is the overriding purpose of this deal.

If that perception gains ground in a public acquisition of this scale, be sure to dress for the discomfort of hell. It’s a judgement that will make the consequence of a ratings downgrade feel like a walk in the park.

• David Lewis is the executive director of Corruption Watch, which is the South African chapter of Transparency International