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By Karam Singh
First published on News24

One of the things I always listen for in the SONA is a strong statement up front saying that to build better lives for our people, grow the economy, make communities safer, and address load shedding – we must make significant strides in defeating corruption. But what tends to happen is that corruption is slotted in several pages down and far from appearing up front in the piece, gets scant attention.

Maybe it is a theoretical concern around determinants and causality, but there is a lingering feeling across South Africa that despite post-state capture initiatives, government treats corruption as an after-effect or outcome of something undetermined, rather than the phenomenon that is the actual cause of existing democratic and developmental challenges. And not only post-state capture – President Cyril Ramaphosa came to power on a strong anti-corruption ticket whose expansive promises have fizzled out under a poor response to the onslaught of malfeasance and graft.

If corruption is the primary problem leading to economic decline and underdevelopment, then prioritising its reduction must become the imperative. To do otherwise is to doom the country to steady deterioration.

With the release of the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), we have seen South Africa fall below the global average and drop two points to an all-time low score of 41. This places the country into a category identified by Transparency International as flawed democracies and adds another black mark to South Africa’s global standing, after the dent to its reputation because of the 2023 greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force. It is concerning that South Africa is increasingly viewed this way as we go into an election season.

If you look at the 2023 SONA on anti-corruption, the measures identified are all appropriate.  The issue is what progress we have made in these areas, which include better whistle-blower legislation, improved access to witness protection programmes, the public procurement bill, and overhauling the current institutional architecture on anti-corruption, among others.

These priorities include a recognition of the need to work with civil society and the private sector to implement an all-of-society approach envisioned in the national anti-corruption strategy, as well as supporting the work of the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council (NACAC) which has been in place since 2022. 

Slow progress

We must recognise that slow progress in all the national priority areas mentioned is a direct outcome of our inability to stem the growing tide of corruption such as the looting of public resources and poor and failing governance across significant parts of the public sector. 

Despite the gains mentioned in the previous SONA above, there is a sense that progress is slow, piece-meal, and incomplete. Two areas of significant frustration include public procurement reform and the overhaul of the institutional architecture.

On procurement reform, civil society has expressed its great concerns at the lack of concrete progressive transparency requirements in the draft legislation and failure to take forward recommendations on the incentivisation of whistle-blowing. The legislation is snaking its way through Parliament, with some hurdles still to overcome.

On the institutional architecture overhaul, the debate continues on the establishment of a dedicated anti-corruption commission or agency with broad powers akin to those of the Scorpions. The NACAC has been seized with these issues and it is expected that it will issue an advisory to the president. What that advisory may contain seems open to debate.

With little consensus including the public consultation that certainly must follow, and with elections looming, it feels as if we remain years away from the architectural overhaul previously announced by the president and envisioned by the national anti-corruption strategy. Elections, as necessary as they are, will just delay this further, keeping a proposed piece of legislation on the conveyer belt, while policy makers have yet to reach a reasonable consensus about the best way forward.

It is important to note that a capable anti-corruption forensic investigative capacity resides with the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) but currently, as a creature of statute, its authority is limited to the receipt of a presidential proclamation followed by investigations primarily to pursue civil recoveries. One idea which has been the source of some debate is a consideration of building a new dedicated independent anti-corruption agency around the existing capacity and mandate of the SIU. Such an agency ideally would have a criminal as well as civil mandate to pursue prosecutions for corruption related offences uncovered through investigations, and progress on tackling corruption would be speeded up.   

The idea of a dedicated single agency that would have powers beyond investigations and prosecutions could also incorporate a state body such as the Financial Intelligence Centre which must play a pivotal role in the future in detecting illicit financial flows and combating money laundering in a more effective way that current law enforcement is able to deliver.  This further begs the question around the importance of financial industry sector reform to up the obligations of financial institutions and stem the flow of dirty money.

It is too soon to hear details of these proposals in the upcoming SONA – but what the speech – and the parliamentary debate that will follow it – can give us is a front and centre treatment of corruption. In addition, political parties must answer questions around safeguarding our democracy, including reform of the electoral system.

Human rights come second to greed

Thirty years after the 1994 elections, South Africa’s democracy is taking strain – therefore, rebuilding legitimate, independent, appropriately funded enforcement institutions that can investigate and seek consequences for corruption and provide an effective deterrent to kleptocracy, must be government’s top agenda item.

This is potentially a tall ask. It is gloomy out there globally in terms of the health of democratic states. Once upon a time South Africa was seen as a global leader in terms of constitutionalism and promotion of human rights but is falling behind the pace of the rest of the world. Hopefully the ICJ intervention against Israel re-announces South Africa’s place as a global human rights leader. 

Corruption flows from the abuse of human and socio-economic rights such as water and sanitation, electricity, education, health, housing, and land. At times it has crippled basic service delivery and decades of mismanagement are taking a toll on plans for development and growth.

The tragedy of the corruption story is not just about national resources and priorities that get diverted and looted – it is about what is happening at local government.

As auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke said when she released local government audit findings in 2023, “Local government has been characterised by dysfunctional municipalities, financial mismanagement, council and administrative instability, and crumbling municipal infrastructure. This leads to deteriorating standards of living and service delivery failures, resulting in protests.”

Service delivery improvements will be enabled by capable, accountable, and citizen-centric municipal leadership delivering on their mandates to improve the lives of ordinary South Africans, said Maluleke.

To achieve this is the greatest priority for both the current dispensation, and the citizens who will later this year be voting for a government that genuinely attends to their needs and requirements.

Finally, greater visibility for the work of the national anti-corruption architecture is required. The SIU remains a shining light and to secure its effectiveness as a civil recoveries investigative body, the new parliament must act quickly. It must either pass the necessary amendments to SIU legislation to make it an effective stand-alone agency that can make civil recoveries through the use of the special tribunal, or evolve the SIU into the new anti-corruption agency South Africa needs.

Time is absolutely against the current administration when it comes to achieving the goal of an institutional overhaul. Time will be ticking on the new administration to have ready-made proposals backed by support from social partners and the public to give legitimacy to South Africa’s counter-corruption enforcement efforts. 

We will soon look beyond the SONA to what the parties are prepared to promise us to get elected. We must demand bold commitments including continuing the implementation process of Zondo Commission recommendations, the translation of the national anti-corruption strategy into tangible results, and measures to get South Africa off the grey list expeditiously.

When the CPI rolls in again in 2025 and beyond, we need to ensure South Africa can reverse the perceived negative trajectory it currently travels. A bold SONA that prioritises the advancement of constitutional rights will help.