The glimmering hope of “uniting against corruption” and collectively finding innovative ways “to collaborate better to improve implementation and impact” of anti-corruption measures was well established at the commemoration of 2023 International Anti-Corruption Day at Unisa on December 8.
Deputy President Paul Mashatile delivered the keynote address and also signed the anti-corruption pledge, vowing never to take or pay bribes and to treat public resources respectfully.
Observed annually in honour of the UN Convention Against Corruption, to which South Africa is a signatory, this year also marks the 20th anniversary of the convention.
Since adopting the National Development Plan in 2012, it has been a maxim that South Africa is fighting three enemies: poverty, inequality and corruption. The horrifically destructive deepening poverty and widening inequality are an existential threat to South African statehood after almost 30 years of democracy.
Corruption undermines the effective implementation of the country’s long-term vision and plan to eliminate poverty and derails ambitions to reduce inequality by 2030.
Eradicating corruption is a matter of life and death. Eroding domestic and international trust in the ANC government’s commitment and ability to combat corruption is one of South Africa’s significant challenges, also in the face of a downgrade by major global credit rating agencies.
Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index scored South Africa at 43 on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).
South Africa ranked 72nd among the 180 countries in the Index, where the country ranked first is perceived to have the most honest public sector.
The narrative that South Africa is becoming a basket case, unreformable and corrupted, has long been an alarm bell ring narrative of business and civil society. In his speech at the commemoration, Mashatile said the ANC had taken corruption seriously.
“As an organisation, the ANC has taken steps to fight corruption and strengthen integrity by requiring that members and leaders facing serious criminal charges step aside,” he said.
“The ANC government has issued guidelines on conducting lifestyle audits, and provincial departments are being technically assisted in implementing lifestyle audits and discipline management,” he added.
Mashatile’s reassurances to South Africans that the ANC has taken corruption seriously might have been aimed at sending a clear signal to all.
But Mashatile’s emphasis in the speech also reflects the government’s lack of priorities and urgency, and that fighting corruption remains a raggle-taggle. Several cases over the years came to light due to the courageous work of journalists and whistle-blowers. Civil society, too, has worked hard to raise standards.
Several reports show that public tolerance of corruption has fallen sharply: people chafe at ministers living large when others are making such sacrifices or the government’s fruitless expenditure.
Now, all eyes in South Africa and abroad are on the response of the ANC government leaders and law enforcement agencies.
Time is running out for the government as politicians are switching to election campaign mode before next year’s elections, at the expense of removing the implicated individuals from political office.
Stakeholders must work together to set up a system to protect whistle-blowers to help expose and prevent corrupt schemes. Decision-makers everywhere must replace officials accustomed to the old ways.
The good news is that, even during elections, South African independent media and civil society are working to expose corruption. We can be sure they will monitor the progress of the investigation and court rulings. But the election season also presents new constraints for anti-corruption crusaders.
The government’s tendency to spend money on pet projects to woo voters and the prevalence of secrecy culture in the government that limits access to public information means that some corruption stories might not see the light of day until after the elections.
* Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist