Corruption at its core

2013-12-19 00:00

FIRST published in 1995, the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) produced by Transparency International (TI) now covers 177 countries.

The CPI is a poll of polls reflecting the views of businesspeople, academics and analysts that gauges the health of the public sector. It does not measure private-sector corruption such as anti-competitive business practice, money laundering or bribe paying by multinationals. But in focusing on government, it examines that crucial intersection between citizen, state, resources and political power.

Less than one third of the countries recently scrutinised had a score of more than 50%. Over the years, South Africa has consistently fallen within the poorly performing group and our rating has gradually declined. Nine surveys were amalgamated this year to give a current overall result of 42%, earning 72nd place. Equal to Brazil, this raises the question of the other Brics countries and the kind of international company we keep. Russia, China and India all performed badly in the range of 28% to 40%. It’s a sorry tale: we are allying ourselves with some of the world’s largest corrupt nations, while sinking towards their level.

At the turn of the century, TI commented on a crisis of global corruption, misuse of power without apparent visible end. Little has changed. Individual CPI scores vary, but the overall pattern remains static. Well-developed countries with sound democratic systems do well, while the poverty-stricken and unstable remain at the bottom of the rankings. TI must be running out of descriptive terms for a system that is a major contributor to socioeconomic inequality. While the global economic order is to blame for such injustices, home-grown corruption is also a major factor.

TI regards its index as a measure of national integrity and points out that corruption is systemic, a complex vicious circle that requires holistic treatment. The weaknesses in our system lie most obviously in municipal and provincial government, and in particular in tender awards and property rental agreements. As the long-suffering auditor general endlessly reports, enormous sums either prove to be misspent or cannot be traced. The cause is easily identified: political interference and the absence of an independent and impartial public service.

Despite some internal criticism, most memorably from Yunus Carrim when he was deputy minister for co-operative governance, the ANC’s attitude to local government remains basically Leninist. State structures are run in parallel with party organs, particularly the powerful regional executive committees. This explains bizarre appointments, irregular expenditure, missing funds and wasteful projects. And over this the government intends to draw an ever-denser veil of opacity using the Secrecy Bill. No amount of protestation about national security and the dangers of foreign interference can mask the real purpose of the bill, which is to protect patronage and misgovernance by obstructing the role of the press.

Earlier this month in Kiev, anti-government protesters, enraged by the reactionary behaviour of the Ukrainian government, demolished a statue of Lenin. We need to take a proverbial sledgehammer to the corrupt practice of cadre deployment. It is corrupt in its conception because it places party affiliation, implicit blind loyalty, above professional competence. The National Party, of course, behaved in basically the same way in prioritising ideology. The first loyalty of public servants should be to the Constitution and the rule of law. Within this context, they advise and implement the decisions of elected representatives. Their individual political views should be a private matter.

By sheer coincidence, exactly 100 years ago this week, Emily Hobhouse, the South African War human-rights campaigner, made a relevant point that relates to public service. On December 16, 1913, a speech of hers was read at the unveiling of the Women’s Monument at Bloemfontein. It is a mind-numbingly emotion-laden and prolix passage of prose that makes today’s reader welcome the age of the sound bite. But one impressive section reads: “In this South Africa of ours, true patriotism lies in the unity of those who live in her and love her as opposed to those who live on her but out of her. The patriots and the parasites.” It is remarkably relevant to today’s parasitic tenderpreneurs who leach the public fiscus for their own benefit at the expense of the poor.

Our CPI score will not improve until the concept of a professional, politically independent public service is embraced and practical steps are taken to implement it. Current TI chairperson Huguette Labelle blames legal loopholes for public corruption, but this is not our main problem. We have exemplary legislation. Our nemesis is Labelle’s other culprit, a lack of political will. And since a culture of corruption cascades down from the top of government, the future is bleak. But so-called service-delivery protests are without doubt in part a protest about wasteful expenditure. And if the boos for President Jacob Zuma at the Nelson Mandela memorial service at FNB Stadium are an expression of dissatisfaction about expenditure at Nkandla and e-tolling, corruption may now become a real factor in electoral politics.

• Christopher Merrett is letters’ editor at The Witness.

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