Image: Flickr/sharonkubo

By Karam Singh
First published on News24

We have lived through a democratic transition wherein the rule of law has withstood a vicious battering, and what remains is a weak constitutional order presided over by a deeply compromised and corrupt governing party, writes the author.

In the decade since Corruption Watch (CW) was formed, South Africa has descended into a state of kleptocracy where the rule by thieves has become the dominant expression of state power. Corruption is both endemic and systemic, part of the fabric of public governance from state-owned enterprises to most municipalities in the country.

This phenomenon manifests itself in the various and regular transactions between politicians, public sector officials, the private sector, and ordinary people. By regular transactions, we are talking about the day-to-day business of running government, providing services, and ensuring we have a functioning economy.  

Unfortunately, the normal course has become so diverted that irregular transactions are the order of the day – and CW’s 11th annual report bears testament to this situation. 

We have lived through a democratic transition wherein the rule of law has withstood a vicious battering, and what remains is a weak constitutional order presided over by a deeply compromised and corrupt governing party. Public procurement has been ravaged by systemic corruption and looting on a grand scale, as was evident in the modus operandi of those who sought to capture the South African state. 

Reforming this space, particularly in local government, must be one of our main priorities.

Kleptocracy and corruption exposed

State capture is a form of kleptocracy. In South Africa, it was an attempt to ensure maladministration and corruption became normalised such that it could be an unstoppable and perpetual force.

The Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, supported by courageous whistle-blowers, is largely responsible for revealing evidence and information that has put the brakes on the looting. Many of the worst cases of state capture – notably at institutions such as the South African Revenue Service and, to a lesser extent, at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) – have been reversed for now. 

But capacitating these institutions to execute their mandates effectively remains a huge challenge. The NPA, for instance, despite enrolling several high-profile cases, seems mired in capacity and skills constraints that impede it from getting the big cases over the line.    

Despite the commission’s valuable work, the sobering reality is that it merely scratched the surface of the rot across our public sector. As Chief Justice Raymond Zondo noted in his introduction to the report, if the commission were to investigate all instances of state capture brought to its attention across provincial departments and municipalities, its work would have taken 10 years. 

Bold anti-corruption solutions not enough

Because corruption is so deep-rooted, we must focus on bold solutions across the vectors of ensuring accountability, promoting transparency, and seeking to embed good governance. But these measures will not be enough because kleptocracy resists defeat, and greed remains a toxic driver in our society.

The continued weak leadership, variable political will, and piecemeal responses from law enforcement and policymakers means that South Africa is stagnating, with diminishing status as a constitutional democracy that can provide basic services, free of corruption, to its people. 

The energy crisis must be contextualised as a by-product of a corrupt system, ineffectual leadership, and inconsistent political will – and increasingly as an organised crime problem linked to a systemic entanglement with public officials. 

There are international implications. The Financial Action Task Force recently greylisted the country as a jurisdiction under increased monitoring, while South Africa’s reliability as a destination for direct foreign investments is at its lowest point since the end of apartheid.  

Levering drivers for change

Despite this grim picture, CW remains at the forefront of counter-corruption engagements with development partners, social justice actors, and public sector representatives across our rich and diverse civil society. We will continue to push for an enhanced whistle-blower protection and support system that shifts the playing field from the current chilling environment against protected disclosures to a real protection system that even incentivises whistle-blowers. 

In addition, there is a window of opportunity to shake up the law enforcement and criminal justice response to the fight against corruption through the creation of an independent, skilled, well-resourced, and appropriately mandated anti-corruption agency – which can also be a focal point within the state where whistle-blowers can feel protected and supported, knowing that their evidence can lead to appropriate consequence management and accountability.  

Lastly, procurement reform must remain squarely on our agenda of ensuring that appropriate transparency, based on the principles of open contracting, is built into our public procurement system. The state must no longer be seen as a feeding ground for unscrupulous suppliers. The moment is upon us to pass new legislation and commit to a corruption-proofed procurement system across all spheres of government – a system which is transparent and serves the country’s developmental needs, and which ensures accountability for transgressors.  

It begins now 

The reform agenda must include individual action against corruption. Our lack of faith in government means that we must look inward as a society, to ourselves, our families, our schools, our religious communities, and our workplaces, to reinforce our commitment to ethical and democratic values. 

South Africa’s national anti-corruption strategy correctly identifies an all-of-society approach as necessary in the fight against corruption. If we are to ensure a corruption-proof future for our children, we must continue to re-imagine our individual roles within communities mobilised to counter corruption. 

With general elections around the corner, we must continue to test the resilience of our democracy by demanding more – more accountability, more transparency and ethical resilience. 

As we walk this difficult road, CW continues to draw on the strength and courage of those who have suffered and even lost their lives in the struggle to blow the whistle, expose kleptocracy, and defeat corruption.