South Africa needs to establish an anti-corruption agency

Now that the ANC has elected its leaders, it should recognise the problems, opportunities and challenges ahead and make combating corruption a priority.

From allegations of dodgy procurement deals for textbooks in Limpopo to alleged flaws in the tender process for a contract with the South African Social Security Agency, few weeks go by without a corruption scandal hitting the headlines. Unfortunately, despite the outrage, few are held to account. This can change. The years following the end of apartheid were marked by a shared sense of optimism and although this may be diminished there is still hope and aspiration for social justice.

Tackling corruption is arguably one of the most crucial tasks to realising this vision. Moreover, citizens are demanding greater transparency and accountability and, with a ­general election slated for 2014, politicians would do well to listen.

Reform should indeed start at the top, as it is the government that sets the country’s moral compass. For example, to establish a benchmark for transparency throughout the political system, all top government officials, including the president and Cabinet ministers, should be asked to publish a register of their assets.

President Jacob Zuma has been dogged by corruption allegations in the courts and in the media. It would demonstrate his commitment to transparency and accountability if he released the details of the cost of the renovation to his private residence. It is the lack of access to this information that has fuelled allegations of improper spending.

Anti-corruption efforts
The government should also amend the new Protection of State Information Bill, known as the secrecy Bill. If it is passed in its current form, it is likely to muzzle the media and discourage whistle-blowers from coming forward. A free press and protection for whistle blowers are critical to enabling people to hold public officials to account.

Transparency, coupled with credible enforcement, is at the heart of all anti-corruption efforts. To this end, the government should strongly consider appointing an anti-corruption agency, independent of political parties, to ensure that the rules and regulations that cover conflict of interest and public contracting are not subverted.

It would logically follow that the government should scrap the law that allows those who hold public office to hold concurrent positions in companies that work on government contracts. The scope for favouritism is too large under the current legislation, which insists only that politicians list their interests.

Deterrence for wrongdoing is too weak. For example, the only action that resulted from the scandal surrounding the social security tender was the announcement of an investigation by the United States justice department, under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, because a company involved was listed on a US stock exchange. The South African authorities are not yet pursuing the case.

It is important to stress the need for a political elite that values ­integrity and public service above self-interest and patronage. If this is not the case and corruption continues to flourish, the battle for freedom from oppression will not deliver true justice to the most vulnerable in society, who will suffer yet again.

Cobus de Swardt is managing director of Transparency International, the global anticorruption organisation, and Chantal Uwimana is its regional director for Africa

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