/ 1 February 2024

Corruption in South Africa is ‘more entrenched’

A protester holds up a poster at the Zuma Must Fall March in 2017. File photo

South Africa’s steady decline on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) indicates that corruption has become entrenched, involves many people with political power and that the state’s ability to prosecute perpetrators is dismal.

This was the reaction of analysts to the latest CPI 2023 report released on Tuesday, which showed the country’s score on the index had deteriorated along with several other countries because of a global decline in justice and the rule of law, from Europe and the Americas to sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, since 2016.

“The rise of authoritarianism in some countries contributes to this trend, and even in democratic contexts, the mechanisms that keep governments in check have weakened. Governments across the political spectrum have undermined justice systems, restricted civic freedoms and relied on non-democratic strategies to address recent challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic,” the CPI 2023 report noted.

The CPI ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public-sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople. It uses a scale of zero to 100, where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is clean.  

South Africa ranked 72 out of the 180 countries, scoring 41 (a drop from 43 in 2022) along with Burkina Faso, Vietnam and Kosovo, while China and Cuba scored slightly better at 42. The Seychelles, at 71, was the highest scoring in sub-Saharan Africa.

With a score of 90, Denmark headed the global ranking for the sixth year in a row, followed closely by Finland and New Zealand with scores of 87 and 85 respectively. Norway (84), Singapore (83), Sweden (82), Switzerland (82), the Netherlands (79), Germany (78) and Luxembourg (78) completed the top 10 this year.

Countries experiencing conflict or with highly restricted freedoms and weak democratic institutions tended to score worse. Somalia (11), Venezuela (13), Syria (13) and South Sudan (13) were at the bottom of the index, while Yemen (16), Nicaragua (17), North Korea (17), Haiti (17), Equatorial Guinea (17), Turkmenistan (18) and Libya (18) are the next lowest performers.

Centre for Risk Analysis executive director Chris Hattingh said South Africa’s ranking “indicates that corruption has become more entrenched, and will be decidedly difficult to shift”.

“That prosecutions against the biggest players in the  ‘state capture’ saga has not taken place fuels businesses’ and the public’s perception that not much is done regarding corruption,” Hattingh said.

He said the “relatively speedy release” from prison of former president Jacob Zuma added to the notion that some people are allowed to play by a different set of rules; “that if you have enough money and political connections you will be able to experience a different kind of ‘rule of law’”.

“Changing corruption, especially in the government and public service, will be a long-term project for South Africa, that should be focused on and invested in throughout numerous elections and the permutations of those elections. Short-term expectations will likely be unrealistic and only result in more disillusionment and frustration.” 

He said countries needed to ensure accountability and prosecutions of corrupt activities in a difficult economic climate and rising debt costs.

“Higher debt servicing costs will mean governments need to pare back spending, possibly impacting negatively on things like police, corruption-prosecution initiatives, intelligence agencies and capacities and the like. South Africa will not be immune from this, where there is already lower trust in government, government departments, and the police.”

Hattingh said that the longer economic hardships persist — growth may only reach the 1.5% mark this year — the more public frustration with the government and status quo will grow.

“That could entail disdain for or outright ignoring of the rule of law, especially by actors who want to take advantage of that public frustration and  desire for any kind of action or change,” he said.

Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse chief executive Wayne Duvenage said it was “interesting” to note that South Africa has continued over the past few years “to go backwards” when it comes to its corruption index.

“⁠⁠In 2021, our score was at a poor rating of 44. Sadly we dropped another two points to 42 in 2022 and this year, the score dropped again to 41,” Duvenage said.

“This is indicative of a country that is getting worse when it should be improving, given that we have a president that got into power on the back of an anti-corruption ticket and that we have come out of a Zondo commission of inquiry with significant exposure of corruption.”

Duvenage said he did not think the ANC had the political will to take the fight against corruption seriously.

“This is a sign of two main reasons: the government’s inability to lead and strive for an efficient criminal justice system and  a large percentage of people in positions of political  power being part of the problem,” he said.