South Africa – A Snapshot of its Journey against Corruption
South Africa is the third-largest economy in Africa and has a strong history of activism. Despite this, the country is also rated the most unequal country in the world, even 30 years after the end of Apartheid. This context is important when trying to understand both the effects of corruption and anti-corruption efforts in South Africa. During the nearly decade-long administration led by Jacob Zuma (2009–2018), democratic institutions suffered huge setbacks. This was particularly true for institutions working to combat corruption, like the Office of the Public Protector and other agencies that form an important part of the country’s criminal justice system. These setbacks are reflected in South Africa’s CPI score drastically dropping during the last years of Zuma’s presidency.
Commitment rich, but implementation poor
South Africa does not have one entity solely focused on anti-corruption measures, despite many arguments in favour of such an institution. Instead, investigative powers are distributed across multiple agencies, none of which can criminally prosecute offenders – such powers lie with the National Prosecuting Authority – nor do they have the power needed for decisive action to eradicate corruption. South Africa was among the first countries to sign and ratify the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (AUCPCC) and has recently taken several important steps in its fight against corruption, especially with the adoption of the national anti-corruption strategy in 2020.
The most important progress in recent years is the adoption of the national anti-corruption strategy. Because of the weakening of systems within government, as well as officials not being properly skilled or properly trained, that then opens the system up to abuse. Sometimes, it’s just a question of pure negligence. So we need to strengthen institutions with the right skills and the right resources and the right infrastructure. There is an overlap between the national strategy and the AU convention’s Article 5 that deals with that specifically, and that would definitely be a starting point to be able to address that gap.
The African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption
The AUCPCC is a shared roadmap for member states to implement good governance and anti-corruption policies and systems. South Africa signed the convention in March 2004 and ratified it in November 2005. One immediate outcome of signing the AUCPCC was the enactment of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act (PRECCA) in 2004. The act strengthens measures to prevent and combat corruption and is considered the centrepiece of anti-corruption legislation in South Africa.
Under the TEA-CAC project, Transparency International’s South Africa Chapter, Corruption Watch, conducted research into the status of implementation of the AUCPCC, with a focus on anti-corruption institutions (Article 5). In order to rate South Africa’s compliance with the AUCPCC, Corruption Watch developed a scorecard. For more details on this scorecard and other advocacy tools, please see individual toolkits from the Tools & Tactics to promote the Africa Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption.
Watching the watchdog
In August 2018, the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture – commonly referred to as the Zondo Commission – was launched. This public inquiry investigated allegations of corruption and fraud in the public sector and involved high profile names such as the Gupta family and other Zuma allies and family members. As such, the Zondo Commission is seen by many as a monumental event in the anti-corruption space in South Africa. In April 2019, Corruption Watch presented findings from its research on the AUCPCC’s Article 5, and made a joint submission with the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) to the commission. This submission included their review of the state of South Africa’s anti-corruption institutions and recommendations for strengthening them.
The recommendations by Corruption Watch and the ISS included competency and integrity assessments for senior managers, audits to identify irregular appointments and legislation to ensure greater transparency around the relationship between the executive and the senior leadership of criminal justice agencies. They also recommended that outcomes of the Zondo Commission are made available for public scrutiny.
We did extensive work around the commission. We were there, literally, every single day, summarising the hearings in a user friendly format and sharing the reports with our entire database of stakeholders. For the public to get a view of the extent of corruption, of the amount of money meant to alleviate poverty lining pockets of officials instead, I think it was almost cathartic in a way. Now we have the evidence, we have something concrete to help force the government to act.
While the Zondo Commission was a reactive measure in the wake of decades of endemic corruption, Corruption Watch also works on more preventative approaches. Starting in 2019, the government formed three anti-corruption forums – on health, local government and infrastructure – in which Corruption Watch plays an active role. The purpose of these forums is to receive allegations specific to their individual sectors. Then, they assess and refer these complaints to the relevant institution which investigates them and reports back to the forum to ensure that appropriate actions are taken.
When investigations are conducted, the public has a right to know the outcomes, how recoveries have been made on behalf of the public, how public money has been saved, that individuals are held to account. We find that the more we publicise the outcomes, the more public confidence in us increases. This is measured in what we see on social media and in the renewed will on the part of whistleblowers to now bring matters to the front. We didn’t see that previously. It also bodes well for the relationship between state and civil society to be able to work together, because the state can’t fight this mammoth beast of corruption alone.
Initially, all the members of the health anti-corruption forum were from the government or the private sector. Corruption Watch publicly called out the omission of civil society which resulted in them, and other civil society organisations, being included in the forum. This engagement of civil society and collaboration with the government and private sector helps ensure systemic changes are implemented.
In 2020, Corruption Watch partnered with the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), which is also a member of the health anti-corruption forum, to host a series of public webinars on corruption related issues in the health sector. The core function of the SIU is to conduct forensic investigations geared towards litigation and recovery of losses suffered by the state. These jointly hosted webinars were designed to help people recognise and define corrupt behaviour, teach them how to react when faced with it and where to report cases. With around 300 people attending each of the four live events, these webinars were successful in reaching large portions of the public.
I think real progress can be made with the strengthening of anti-corruption institutions. A lot of lessons have been learnt over the last 10 years. South Africa is going through this iteration of state capture and hollowing out of our criminal justice agencies, but in trying to rebuild, there is a lot more strengthening of these institutions, either in terms of capacitating them with funding and resources or by expanding their mandate and improving their independence. Just the fact that the Zondo Commission was established is, in itself, a step in the right direction. I think there is real hope around that.