The high price of corruption

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Corruption has become a scourge in South Africa. 

It poses a real danger to South Africa’s developing democracy. The Government’s ability to meet its commitment to fight poverty and to deliver on other social and economic needs is compromised. Corruption blatantly undermines the democratic ethos, the institutions of democracy, the rule of law and the foundational values of the constitutional project. It fuels maladministration and public fraudulence and imperils the capacity of the state to fulfil its obligations to respect, protect, promote and fulfil all the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. When corruption and organised crime flourish, sustainable development and economic growth are stunted. And in turn, the stability and security of society is put at risk.

In a statement preceding the text of the United Nations Convention against Corruption, Kofi Annan observed: “This evil phenomenon is found in all countries big and small, rich and poor but it is in the developing world that its effects are most destructive. Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately by diverting funds intended for development, undermining a government’s ability to provide basic services, feeding inequality and injustice, and discouraging foreign investment and aid. Corruption is a key element in economic under-performance, and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development.”

South Africa, when it signed the UN Convention, stated: ““Corruption is a common feature in all political systems, despite the differences that may exist in their governing philosophies or their geography. Nation-states are increasingly aware that corruption presents a serious threat to their core principles and values, and hinders social and economic development. As a result, there has been a growing acceptance of the need to address the problem in a coordinated, comprehensive and sustainable way.” 

In the famous Shaik trial, the Supreme Court of Appeal pointed out: “[the] seriousness of the offence of corruption cannot be overemphasised. It offends against the rule of law and the principles of good governance. It lowers the moral tone of a nation and negatively affects development and the promotion of human rights. As a country we have travelled a long and tortuous road to achieve democracy. Corruption threatens our constitutional order. We must make every effort to ensure that corruption with its putrefying effects is halted. Courts must send out an unequivocal message that corruption will not be tolerated and that punishment will be appropriately severe.” (Emphasis added.)

South Africa has for some time had strong laws dealing with corruption. And there are massive penalties for those convicted of corrupt activities. Yet South African society seems riddled with the cancer of corruption. Every level of government has been hit by the sickness.

Many different parts of the economic life of South Africa are affected. High level examples are in the mining industry, the catering at prisons, the collection of taxes, the roll out of social security, the allocation of fishing rights, and the provision of electricity. But even local issues, such as the issuing of driving licenses and the grant of zoning or building rights, have become corruption ridden.

So, why if such strong laws exist is there such a scourge? I suggest there are at least three answers: first, law enforcement agencies have been defanged. The investigating and forensic capacities of the police have been seriously weakened through the appointment of inexperienced, and sometimes captured officers and leaders. The same applies to the prosecuting services. They have had poor leadership for some years now. Internal politics at the National Prosecuting Authority have been intense and debilitating. There are serious suggestions of political interference in prosecution decisions. Many politically connected persons can conduct themselves with impunity. They are know they can literally get away with murder. Secondly, many government officials regard the public purse as their feeding trough. The taking of employment in the public service is not for altruistic reasons, but rather to self-enrich. The same with election to public office. A sense of entitlement has developed. Thirdly, over the years it became increasingly clear to private businesses that often the only way to obtain government contracts was through bribery and corruption. To be competitive in tendering for lucrative government tenders a backhander was necessary. So, a catering contract for prisons would be put out for tender. 

The company that is successful puts in a far higher bid than the others. It paid the bid adjudicator millions in cash, and enjoyed the benefits of a ridiculously high priced catering tender. Who loses? The public, and particularly the poor directly. But when inequality is not addressed the whole society suffers.

How can this challenge be met? The past decade in South Africa has shown that constitutional institutions, such as the judiciary and the public protector which perform independently and without fear and favour, can at least identify the corruption to a degree. But the police investigators and prosecutors also need to do their jobs.

What about civil society? The media are crucial in the fight against corruption. Without exposure, corruption will go on unabated. But, of course the media itself must be independent, and not be captured by particular criminal interests. Private business must also plays its part in at least two ways: first, avoid the temptation to partake in corruption, and secondly fund those non-profit organisations which exist to advance social justice. It was civil society that led the charge against State Capture. And civil society needs support. All those who care should be asking themselves: how can I assist? There are so many ways. If funding a social justice organisation is not an option there are so many other possibilities. At schools learners can and should be taught about the issues. Accountants can give their time and skills to police or tax collecting investigators. Either by assisting in the work itself or helping up skill inexperienced government officials. 

If we all work together to limit, if not eliminate, the corruption in society, then the wide spread poverty can start being addressed and social cohesion could become something of a reality. 

To download the full PDF of the March Cape Jewish Chronicle, click here

To read Anton’s column from last month, click here

To read the most read article of last month, click here

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