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Dear Corruption Watch,
The Transparency International survey out late last year shows that South African's perception of corruption is increasing. I always hear the term 'tipping point' mentioned as though certain countries are nearing some sort of precipice. How is this tipping point defined and how can our laws affect perception that we are a country in which we are proud to live and do business?
Let's start by summarising the findings the 2012 Corruption Perception Index, a well-respected ranking of the perceived level of corruption in countries across the globe. In 2010, South Africa was ranked the 54th least corrupt country in the world. In 2011, we dropped to 64th and in the 2012 survey, South Africa was ranked 69th. The most worrying part of the survey is not the specific ranking – we have similar scores to Brazil and Italy – but the trend of steady decline.
The phrase “tipping point” can have both a negative and a positive meaning. Negatively, it could refer to the point at which corruption escalates to the point where it appears out of control. This could happen because the institutions of government are so corrupt that they are no longer willing or able to take any action to reduce levels of corruption. And concomitantly where businesses and citizens accept that any sort of transaction with the public sector – from winning a government contract to ‘negotiating’ a traffic fine – involves an informal payment. High levels of corruption tend to be accompanied by increasing oppression of citizens and disrespect for human rights. If public perception of corruption is excessively high, and public confidence in government is low, democracy is undermined. At this point, government will be limited in its ability to introduce even honest programmes because it will have lost public trust.
Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector, warned us of this sort of tipping point. As she put it: “If we don’t deal with corruption decisively it will not only impact on good governance, but has the potential to distort our economy and to derail democracy.”
The tipping point also refers to the point at which corruption becomes endemic. Here, there is little space left for citizens and public officials to interact in society without engaging in corrupt activities. We saw that in our campaign against bribery on the roads. Those who regularly drove under the influence of alcohol, or those whose livelihood could not bear vindictive delays imposed by traffic officers, like taxi drivers, had developed an interest in maintaining corrupt relationships.
The “tipping point” can also been seen in a positive light when public pressure to fight corruption becomes so intense that society is forced to take proactive steps to fight it. When civil society, NGOs, religious bodies, the media, trade unions, political parties and individual citizens alike join together to demand that government act to reduce corruption, that tipping point will be reached and the culture of corruption countered. The hundreds of reports Corruption Watch receives demonstrate the will of our community to put such pressure on government.
But what further action should be taken to improve South Africa’s image in the international community? Laws are an important part of the fight against corruption; good laws make it harder to be involved in corruption and easier to detect, prosecute and punish those who break the laws. But laws alone cannot prevent corruption. The key is independent and committed institutions and individuals inside and outside of government who are devoted to exposing corruption and holding perpetrators to account. This in turn makes the environment less conducive to corruption and people less tolerant of it.
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