Most South Africans have come to terms with the idea that corruption in the country is endemic. There are few days that go by when there isn’t a headline about some form of malfeasance in both the public and private sectors. And while the Zondo Commission laid bare how entrenched corruption really is, few South Africans were truly shocked by the revelations. As if to underline how used to corruption the country’s people have become, the general sentiment in the wake of the recent floods that devastated KwaZulu-Natal was resigned acceptance that government officials would plunder relief funds and aid for themselves.
But in taking that attitude of numb acceptance we risk forgetting the very real consequences corruption has on the welfare of ordinary South Africans and the country’s international reputation. The recently released 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index should provide an important wake-up call.
Why perceptions matter
Created by Transparency International, the biennial index ranks 180 countries and territories around the world by their perceived levels of public sector corruption. The results are given on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Some two-thirds of countries in the index scored below 50, meaning that they’re seen to be more corrupt than clean.
Among those more corrupt countries is South Africa. The country scored 44 and was ranked joint 70th out of the 180 countries. The countries nearest to South Africa on the list (Vanuatu, Jamaica, and Tunisia) hardly speak to the image of an emerging, stable, middle-income country it would like to project to investors.
And while its score didn’t get any worse over the past year, it also didn’t get any better. That doesn’t reflect well on the reforms promised by Cyril Ramaphosa when he ascended to the presidency in 2018.
The lack of positive movement on the index should be concerning to everyone. While the index’s results may seem academic to some, many organisations view it as an important tool when they’re conducting risk assessments on either entering a country or investing in existing entities in that market.
Those organisations understand that the index measures perceptions of public sector corruption, but a low ranking raises red flags and causes them to approach even private sector companies with circumspection. It makes sense too. Would high profile examples of private sector corruption – such as those at Tongaat, Steinhoff, and African Bank – have occurred if South Africa were less of a fertile environment for corruption in general?
In the best-case scenario, investors end up doing more due diligence on South African companies (not always a bad thing) and in the worst-case scenario, they shy away from investing in the country entirely.
South Africa’s place on the index, in other words, means that it’s always on the back foot when it comes to attracting the international investment it so desperately needs.
On the other hand, should South Africa climb the index and join the minority of countries perceived to be more clean than corrupt, then the equation changes dramatically. Investor confidence will improve, bringing with it increased job opportunities, increased tax revenue, and improved capabilities when it comes to service delivery.
With that in mind, what should South Africa do when it comes to improving perceptions of corruption in the country?
The first step is to be proactive rather than reactive. All too often, if any action is taken against corrupt officials, it only happens after the media has dragged the incidents out into the light. Public sector bodies need to investigate corrupt officials and deal with them quickly and publicly.
While working on that, it’s also important that the country move away from talk and towards action with incidences of corruption already in the public consciousness. The Zondo Commission, for example, cost taxpayers more than R1-billion. While it has to an extent resulted in things like McKinsey paying SAA and Eskom back hundreds of millions of Rands in improper consulting fees, there have been few arrests and prosecutions as a result of the commission. A few high-profile, rapid, and successful prosecutions will go a long way to both changing the perception that South Africa is soft on corruption and deter others from taking part in corruption.
Understanding the imperative
Of course, getting to that point is easier said than done. But the rewards are absolutely worth the effort. It’s unlikely, however, if those charged with ridding South Africa of corruption (and those funding their efforts to do so) don’t understand the imperative of doing so.
Indices like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index don’t exist in a vacuum and can have a very real impact on investment. Successful efforts at curbing corruption have rewards far beyond the immediate ones that come with doing so. The ripple effects they have could prove crucial to securing the country’s future. Everyone, from political decision-makers and heads of state departments to prosecutors and ordinary members of the public, needs to understand that.