We’re not THAT corrupt. Maybe.

With Nkandla-gate, Gupta-gate, and daily reports of tender fraud and jobs for pals, is South Africa’s slide into a Nigerian realm of widespread state corruption inevitable? Maybe not, if we go by obtainable facts. But that’s the problem with corruption – it’s slippery and difficult to pin down, and entrenched when we have law that effectively encourages it.

Corruption Watch, an advocacy NGO set up last year by prominent people sympathetic to the ANC, received 1 227 reports alleging state corruption in its first 11 months, big chunks of them relating to schools, municipalities, traffic police and health services.

Planning Minister Trevor Manuel thinks corruption the biggest threat to his much-vaunted national development plan. He says that the first thing “jamming” his chances of success are public servants doing business with the state, along with supply chain corruption and unionised teachers. He would like any public servant accused of corruption to be suspended without pay, an astonishing idea obviously open to blackmail and intimidation.

Even more hyped is legal firm Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs which, using data from the Public Service Commission, declares us “losing the battle” against a corruption scourge that lawyer Peter Allwright puts at costing taxpayers nearly R1bn last year. Corruption, frets Allwright, “is rampant, out of control”. Yet by that figure, corruption comes in at not quite 0.1% of annual state expenditure, a bit like some paper clips and a notepad missing from the stationery cupboard of an average business.

Because putting figures to shady things is difficult, we partly rely on what we think. And local perceptions, as measured by Transparency International, are that corruption is lessening in SA, according to its last three annual rankings. Of the Brics countries, we tie with Brazil and are much better off than India, China or Russia.

Meanwhile, government reports that 718 public officials are under active investigation, “freezing orders” of R1bn have been obtained, and 34 presidential proclamations calling for special investigations into state-run things have been signed by Number One since 2009. Senior politicians and public servants are currently on trial in Limpopo, Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape, facing the minimum 15 years imprisonment carried in the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act.

This happens as the proportion of qualified audits by the auditor-general of national departments fell ten percentage points from 2008/09; by 61% for provincial departments since 2000; by 45% for municipalities; and by a game-changing 83% for public entities, says the 2012 SA Survey. Futurefact records 82% of adults declaring that they’ll refuse to pay bribes.

Why then are we so glum? It could be because what is legal is itself sometimes corrupt. Rhodes University economist Gavin Keeton notes this “in the absence of clear regulations prohibiting ethically questionable action”. He points to an audited three quarters of Eastern Cape state contracts “awarded to government officials or their families”.
Corruption Watch worries about law that obscures more than it reveals, such as the Protection of State Information Bill and the “Hawks Bill” amendments to the SAPS Act. And no-one mentions that biggest market corrupter of all, race-based qualifications to tender awards and state contracts. In the quest for spotless and predictable state action, we create sticks for our own backs.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 11 June 2013)