Sharp Instruments but No Political Will?

By Dr Garth le Pere

Corruption is a global phenomenon in its reach, causes, and effects. Along with the globalisation of goods, services, and finance, there has been a greater shift to materialism and consumerism which has fuelled greed and acquisitiveness. In addition, corruption has eroded trust in governments and has undermined the social contract between those who govern and those who are governed. According to the World Economic Forum, combatting corruption will be one of the defining challenges of this generation because of the extent to which it can cripple any well-meaning agenda for growth and development. The World Bank considers corruption to be a major obstacle for achieving two important Sustainable Development Goals of ending extreme poverty by 2030; improving shared prosperity for the poorest 40 per cent of people in developing countries.

Hence, there are growing numbers of leaders and organisations across the world who are starting to engage in a more honest dialogue about who lubricates the wheels of corruption, through what means. 

They have also wrestled with what can be done through compacts of collective action and putting in place the correct prevention and enforcement tools. Indeed, the World Bank has called for a new era of “radical transparency” to generate social and political pressures that will launch the moral equivalent of war against corruption.

The causes of corruption can be found in four interlocking and mutually reinforcing circuits. Firstly, there are social structures that may harbour sources of corruption. The argument is often made that post-colonial states in Africa have reproduced the regimes of extraction, accumulation, and control that are the heart of the colonial project; and this helps to explain the congenital weakness of African states. Secondly, there are behavioural issues such as the levels of integrity and accountability as well as the standard of ethics of politicians, cabinet ministers, and civil servants; as well as executives and managers in the private sector. Thirdly, there are institutions which can be constructed and reproduced to promote policy-induced change, but which can also be abused for nefarious ends and thus rendered dysfunctional in terms of their original purpose. Lastly, there is the culture of society which can either facilitate a positive moral orientation to probity or alternately, could be the incubator of attitudes and behaviour that enable corruption such as codes of secrecy and practices of patronage.

These features can be replicated across any society, whether developed or developing, to generate an ecosystem of corruption. However, it is astounding and perplexing that both South Africa and Africa have adopted very robust instruments for combatting corruption, yet the scourge afflicts our country and our continent like a malignant tumour that is deeply embedded in the anatomy of their political cultures. But it is also important to situate corruption in a global context to understand its toxic effects across other countries and regions. This explains why the UN has attempted to develop normative and operational frameworks which all members are expected to adopt and adhere to. 

Setting the Global Context

South Africa probably did not anticipate the extent to which corruption would damage the moral fabric of its society and the functional integrity of its institutions when it hosted International Anti-Corruption Day on 9 December 2013. It was a day expressly set aside to celebrate the first decade of the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) which was signed in 2003 and adopted in 2005. It represents the first truly global compact aimed at preventing and combating corruption. Of equal importance is the fact that the Convention has been built around an international consensus involving signatory states, representatives of the international private sector, and civil society organisations. 

Now 16 years after UNCAC’s signing, we would do well to recall its essential rationale and logic. As former Secretary General, Kofi Annan, so cogently noted in his foreword to the Convention document, “corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies. It undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life and allows organized crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish.”

The UNCAC is, therefore, a moral compass to guide nations and societies against this serious economic, social, and political blight that tears at the very fabric of life and society as we know it. It sends unequivocal signals to those in both the public and private sectors that any betrayal of the core values of honesty, trust, respect for the rule of law, accountability, and transparency will not be tolerated. The UNCAC is even more remarkable for its remit and reach. As a consensus document, it is a comprehensive normative charter with a set of standards, measures, and rules which all signatory countries can apply to improve and strengthen their own legal and regulatory systems in dealing with the pernicious consequences of corruption. This takes on added significance for poor and developing countries where the effects of corruption tend to be particularly severe and destructive; and where the four features referred to above can create a perfect storm.

Kofi Annan also noted another cardinal principle which underpins the UNCAC in his foreword: this is imperative for stronger and better cooperation among signatory countries to detect and prevent corruption. The significance of this imperative is that corruption has become an international phenomenon in its scope, substance, and consequences. Forms of corruption are emulated, and their modalities are easily transferred from one country to another. Crucially, since corrupt behaviour is illegal, the proceeds of corruption are often transferred abroad, and this brings financial institutions, especially banks, into the network of complicity. It is for this reason that the entire international community, including governments, international institutions, NGOs, donors, financial institutions, and multinational corporations are seriously concerned about the global implications of corruption since it encourages the spread of transnational criminality, facilitates a global political economy of illegal transactions, and promotes unfair conditions for trade and finance, among others.

African Union Leaders

The UNCAC thus represents the high-water mark in multiple international efforts to confront and deal with the scourge of corruption. As a matter of fact, the fight against corruption has become a major global industry and a top policy priority such that different international organisations have all weighed in with strategies and codes to fight corruption, including Transparency International, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Organisation of American States, the European Union, the World Trade Organisation, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. While it is the obligation of national governments to prevent and combat corruption at country level, all these international efforts point to the need and indeed, the urgency for broad-based international cooperation for ensuring that measures suited to different country environments are consistent and fair; and can foster better international relations based on equity, a shared vision, and commonness of purpose.

While the UNCAC very much complements other instruments meant to prevent and eradicate corruption such as the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, it has distinguishing features which set it apart, consisting of a preamble and 71 articles which can be summarised as follows. Firstly, its basic purpose is to prevent corrupt practices and illicit fund transfers and to put in place measures to combat these practices effectively. Secondly, it criminalises and represses corrupt practices, and provides for illegally transferred funds to be returned to their countries of origin. Thirdly, it promotes, facilitates, and supports international cooperation and technical assistance to ensure that the processes and measures to prevent and combat corruption are practical and do produce results. 

And finally, it seeks to promote integrity, accountability, and proper management of public affairs and public property. In short, then, the UNCAC is intended to be a wide-ranging, functional, and effective instrument which considers the multiple dimensions of corruption. Importantly, it establishes a common vocabulary and set of guidelines for international cooperation that can be given legal force at national levels, with the right balance struck between prevention and prosecution.

The Scope of Corruption in Africa

The letter and spirit of the UNCAC have been very instructive and consequential for Africa where, as we know, corruption undoubtedly remains a daunting challenge to good governance, sustainable economic growth, stability, and development. Broad-based research over the last decade by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in conjunction with the African Development Bank has revealed the debilitating and corrosive effects of corruption across the continent. 

In the economic realm, it impedes economic growth by discouraging foreign investment; it creates distortions in resource allocation and competitive markets; it increases the cost of doing business and reduces the net-value of public spending; it reduces the quality of services and public infrastructure and the volume of tax revenues; and it encourages the misappropriation and misallocation of scarce resources. In the political realm, it undermines the rule of law, respect for human rights, accountability and transparency, and weakens government institutions. This, in turn, erodes public legitimacy and trust in government and compromises good governance. Corruption also has high social costs since it increases income inequality and poverty and adversely affects the moral character of society.

A 2005 African Governance Report produced by the UNECA shows that, next to poverty and unemployment, corruption is perceived to be the most serious of national challenges in Africa. A similar survey-based report in 2016 shows that more than 50 per cent of consulted experts think that the executive and judiciary are the most corrupt institutions in Africa but also that civil society organisations and business are not immune to participating in various forms of corrupt behaviour. The socio-economic and political cost of corruption in Africa is particularly high. As far back as 2004, it was estimated by the African Development Bank that corruption costs the continent over US$148 billion per annum and that more than US$30 billion of development aid was lost to corruption in the previous decade. 

Furthermore, illicit financial flows and corrupt practices such as trade mispricing and commercial tax evasion by multinational corporations, especially in the oil and extractive sectors deprive the continent of much needed financial resources for development. It is estimated that around $850 billion has left the continent through such means over the last 30 years. In 2015, former President Thabo Mbeki led a study under the auspices of UNECA on illicit financial flows from Africa. The study found that Africa lost $50 billion a year because of illicit financial flows and corrupt practices with major implications for Africa’s governance and development agenda, what with a socio-economic environment where 450 million people must live on $1.25 a day.

What has Africa done?

It is against this rather depressing backdrop that we should appreciate the role which the African Union (AU) has played in an aggressive anti-corruption drive. In 2003, incidentally, the same year that the UNCAC was signed, African Heads of State adopted the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption. It came into force in 2006 with the objective of preventing, detecting, punishing, and eradicating corruption and related offences among the AU’s then 53-member states. Currently, 45 countries have signed the Convention and 31 have ratified it. But sorely lacking is the political will to drive an anti-corruption agenda across the continent against a ledger of sophisticated instruments? Let us examine these the nature and substance of these.

Very much following the letter and spirit of the UN Convention, the AU Convention defines corruption and covers a wide range of offences such as bribery, illicit enrichment, illegal funding of political parties, money laundering, and diversion of property by public officials. Among other things, it requires member states to put in place appropriate legislation and establish anti-corruption agencies, as well as urging government officials to declare their assets and to abide by ethical codes of conduct.

The AU Convention has had several positive institutional effects and spin-offs as a continental call-to-arms in the battle against corruption. Firstly, the AU Commission has assisted with establishing the Pan-African Body of National Anti-Corruption Institutions. As a matter of fact, the second meeting of this Pan-African Body took place here in South Africa in February 2007 and was attended by representatives of national anti-corruption agencies and other stakeholders from over 25 countries. In the same year, another important event took place in South Africa and this was the “African Forum on Fighting Corruption” which was jointly organised by the AU Commission and the UNECA with over 300 delegates attending, including parliamentarians, the heads of anti-corruption agencies, civil society organisations, representatives of international organisations, and former heads of state.

We should also mention, secondly, that anti-corruption measures and guidelines have been built into the African Peer Review Mechanism as a means of encouraging and promoting a culture of good governance among the signatories. And thirdly, another important achievement by the AU Commission in combating corruption has been the inauguration of the African Union Advisory Board on Corruption in 2009. The Board is made up of 11 members from different African countries and its primary purpose is to monitor the progress and implementation of the AU Convention and to advise the AU and member states accordingly. It also has a mandate to facilitate anti-corruption dialogue among the different stakeholders and to provide information and analysis on the scope and nature of corruption across the continent. 

The AU Convention has also helped to focus the spotlight on two neglected areas that require serious attention as loci of corrupt activity. These are corruption in public procurement systems and corruption in the private sector. The public procurement system in Africa has become a veritable site of corruption by public officials for self-enrichment and outright theft. Public officials linked to procurement have become very adept at promoting corrupt practices with a coterie of contractors, consultants, and suppliers where transactions take place outside formal channels and without adherence to due diligence procedures. Various studies have now been undertaken to understand why public procurement systems are so vulnerable to corruption and how reforms and best practices could be encouraged.

Regarding the private sector, there is a mistaken belief that the public sector is more corrupt, inept, and inefficient. This fits well with the neo-liberal credo which regards the private sector as the most efficient, reliable and less corrupt sector of the economy; and thus, privileges the private sector as the engine of economic progress and development. However, we know that the private sector can be a haven of corruption and its behaviour is often worse than the public sector. We need to look no further than the recent global economic crisis of 2008 which was triggered by the greed of private sector agents. It was their financial mismanagement, corruption, and manipulation which set off a chain of events from which the global economy is still struggling to recover. Any systematic study to better understanding the anatomy of corruption in the private sector will show that bad practices are pervasive, especially in Africa’s banking, construction, telecommunications, and extractive sectors.

When all is said and done, Africa’s anti-corruption successes and achievements have been more institutional and procedural than real, with very little political commitment shown by member states to make them effective and durable national policy instruments with bite and teeth. South Africa is a case in point.

The Scope of Corruption in South Africa

As an important country signatory to the UN and AU Conventions, it is a sad paradox that corruption in South Africa has developed a deep tap-root that has reached endemic proportions, penetrating different levels of government and society as we have witnessed in recent evidence coming from the Zondo Commission of Enquiry into State Capture. There are estimates that over the last 10 years, almost R1.4 trillion (or R1400 billion!!) has been appropriated through devious, deceitful, and irregular means from the public purse, with municipal governments being the sites of the worst abuses. Besides undermining South Africa’s nascent democracy, the problem of corruption has a direct impact on growth efforts and development initiatives. These are embodied in the National Development Plan to deal decisively with the triple scourge of poverty, inequality, and unemployment. Furthermore, the country does not fare very well on global indicators: in 2018, on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, South Africa was ranked 74th out of 176 countries compared to a ranking of around 40th some 15 years earlier; a slippage of 34 places!!

There are several examples which capture the gravity and seriousness of South Africa’s situation. According to Global Financial Integrity, South Africa suffered an illegal outflow of R250 billion due to corruption in the public sector between 1994 and 2018. In 2010, the audit firm BDO reported that the total annual leakage from company fraud, theft and corruption in South Africa amounted to R100 billion. The former head of the Special Investigations Unit, Willie Hofmeyr, once told Parliament that between R25 and R30 billions of the government’s annual procurement budget alone was lost to corruption, incompetence, irregular tendering, and negligence. By the estimates of Corruption Watch, South Africa has lost a staggering R385 billion since 1994 due to corruption at every level of government. And recently, revelations at the Zondo Commission implicate the Bosasa Group of companies with fleecing the state to the tune of R1.1 billion. This is merely the tip of the iceberg in the larger miasma of state capture that has been unearthed by the Commission. 


The recent elections and its outcome amply demonstrate the extent to which the ANC has lost much of its moral authority to govern South Africa. There is a loss of respect, confidence, and trust in the ruling party and this is largely attributable to its involvement and complicity in corruption across all levels of government and state-owned enterprises. Arguably and indeed, more than any other pathology in South Africa’s body politic, corruption poses a serious systemic challenge to its democracy and to addressing the tragic legacies of its past. 

What has South Africa Done?

It is a bitter irony that South Africa has developed a comprehensive and sophisticated anti-corruption architecture, consistent with the normative and ethical underpinnings of UN and AU instruments, of which the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) is its chief institutional and regulatory custodian. At the level of enforcement, the South African Police Service prevents, combats and investigates corruption through its Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate if police members are implicated. The National Prosecuting Authority institutes and conducts criminal proceedings on behalf of the state, and is assisted by the Asset Forfeiture Unit, Specialised Commercial Crime Courts, and the Special Investigating Unit. 

There are also constitutionally mandated institutions which play a critical role in the fight against corruption, namely, the Auditor General, the Public Protector, and the Public Service Commission. The National Treasury, together with the South African Revenue Service and the Financial Intelligence Centre were once very active in dealing with tax-related fraud and corruption as well as identifying unlawful activities and combatting money-laundering (well at least until the Machiavellian par excellence Tom Moyane came along). An Anti-Corruption Task Team is supposed to expedite high-priority corruption investigations and coordinate the anti-corruption efforts of all the relevant agencies noted above but has nothing to show on its record. 

The cancerous deterioration of these institutions is thus symptomatic of how deeply ingrained the culture of state capture has become. It has advanced the interests of a web of persons in both the public and private sectors, driven by gratuitous avarice, ethical bankruptcy, and devious wealth accumulation. 

As an integral part of the country’s institutional architecture, the DPSA is responsible for formulating national anti-corruption strategies whose underlying philosophy is prevention, education, and enforcement and fostering an ethical organisational and behavioural culture across government. It has obviously failed in executing this mandate. This is even more serious when considering the special importance is the Anti-Corruption Coordinating Committee which the DPSA convenes. This Committee implements the anti-corruption strategy to ensure that efforts to combat corruption in the public service are coordinated and integrated in a manner that assists with the prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution, and monitoring. 

The Department has also established a Special Anti-Corruption Unit to support government departments with managing corruption cases as they arise and to enhance efforts to fight corruption. This is complemented by the implementation of the Minimum Anti-Corruption Capacity which requires all departments to put in place base measures to prevent, detect, and manage corrupt behaviour and practices. It seems that there has been a patent disregard of such measures across government departments.

At the level of society, a tri-partite National Anti-Corruption Forum has been established involving government, business, and civil society with the objective of developing a national consensus on anti-corruption as well as improving the coordination of sectoral strategies against corruption and promoting best practice, including putting in place a National Anti-Corruption Hotline. In short, in two decades the country has been able to lay the necessary institutional and normative foundations for a collective effort to address the surge and scourge of corruption in society, whether it be incidental, systematic, and systemic. 

Given the country’s history and the complexity of its transition, this obviously has not been an easy task with ready-made panaceas, but the evidence of state capture shows a total lack of political commitment and ethical resolve to launch a frontal assault against corruption in all its forms, especially when the national interest was at stake during the Zuma years. At the end of the day, South Africa’s elaborate anti-corruption architecture has been more of a mirage or smokescreen behind which duplicitous and corrupt behaviour could fester in most egregious ways and means. The country thus has great expectations that as President, Cyril Ramaphosa will behave differently by restoring the moral integrity of institutions and being unequivocal about the ethical conduct of public servants. In addition, South Africans want to see the prosecutorial effectiveness of agencies charged with enforcing the law, especially when it comes to persons who have been fingered at the different Commissions of Enquiry. 

In conclusion, it might be auspicious, but it is rather disingenuous and self-serving for Africa and South Africa to celebrate any International Anti-Corruption Day because of their respective unsavoury records. What is required is the moral resolve and political readiness to tackle the ‘insidious plague’ of corruption to use Kofi Annan’s words. The UNCAC has helped to provide the global centre of gravity for doing so. The UN Convention recognises the strategic significance of good governance in the development process; it encourages the highest standards of integrity, accountability, and transparency; and it acknowledges the cancerous effects of corruption on government performance and the general morale of society.

Representing something of a gold standard, the UN Convention is useful for shaping continental and country responses in terms of a more rigorous definition of corruption as well as a better understanding of its origins, character, costs, and remedies. For this, we are grateful and trust that Ubuntu and Thuma Mina will be more than empty platitudes over the next five years. 

Dr Garth le Pere is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria


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