SA Elections: A Test of South Africans' Views on Corruption

democracy politics elections corruption
Wednesday, 14 May, 2014 - 09:14

This year’s elections provided an opportunity to understand whether corruption was an issue for many South Africans 

In the wake of the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla, opposition parties have been doing all they can to make this an election issue and keep the tale of excess and waste of R250 million fresh in the minds of citizens.

Yet, the jury is out as to whether corruption really was an election issue, and whether citizens had been sufficiently angered by the expenditure on Nkandla to shift their voting preferences.

South Africa has a strong anti-corruption framework and has signed a raft of international treaties and conventions on preventing and combatting corruption. Despite this, South Africa is increasingly struggling to implement legislation on corruption. This is due to various factors, including a lack of capacity and political will.

The Afrobarometer survey on public perceptions of corruption, which was released last year, provides some insight regarding attitudes towards corruption. It found that 66 percent of South Africans believe the government is failing in ensuring a society free of corrupt and unethical conduct. Only 33 percent believe that the government is succeeding in the fight against corruption, and one percent indicated that they are not aware of its performance in this regard.

The most recent Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) 2012 South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) shows that 74 percent of South Africans believe that corruption has increased. A small minority of 10 percent believed it had decreased, and 12 percent felt that the situation remained static. It also showed that public awareness of corruption is increasing.

In 2003, only nine percent of South Africans identified corruption as a key challenge - in 2011, this percentage had increased to 26 percent. More specifically, the survey revealed that 66 percent of South Africans believe that South African Police Service (SAPS) officials engage in corrupt activities, while 38 percent believe that Home Affairs officials participate in corrupt activities.

It also showed that 37 percent felt that politicians on the national level of government are involved in corruption, while 37 percent suspected that officials managing tender applications were involved in unethical conduct; and 36 percent believed the same of officials employed in judicial services.

The survey also covered perceptions of the causes of corruption, with 63 percent of South Africans attributing it to the national government and Parliament’s inability to effectively deal with corruption, while 33 percent said that corruption is the result of ineffective and lax punitive measures on the part of the judiciary.

Some 30 percent assigned corruption to poor transparency in the management of public expenditure processes, while 29 percent believed close links between business and politics is the primary source of unethical conduct in the public sector. Finally, 28 percent indicated that public tolerance of corruption is responsible for the persistence of this problem in South Africa.

However, South Africa is not alone: the perception that corruption is on the rise is consistent with global trends. For instance, Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2013 revealed that 53 percent of people globally believe that corruption has increased, while 29 percent said that the levels of corruption remained unchanged and only 18 percent felt that they had decreased.

The findings of the various surveys show that South Africans are concerned about corruption: but to what extent have the election manifestos of the major parties spoken to these concerns?

In its manifesto, the African National Congress (ANC) indicated its intention to prohibit public officials from conducting business with the state; commit itself to realising and maintaining a high standard of professionalism in the public administration; focus on both public and private sector corruption; enhance the capacity of anti-corruption agencies to educate the public on corruption and to reform the tender system.

It is not surprising that the ANC has focused on the public service given the ‘revolving door’ between the private and public sector, which has often led to conflicts of interest and has been the basis of several government scandals in recent years.

The Public Service Commission recently confirmed that there has been a sharp increase in financial misconduct in the public sector. Its findings show that money lost to financial misconduct grew from R100 million in the 2008/2009 financial year to R346 million in 2009/2010; and increased to R932 million in the 2010/2011 financial year. It also predicted that this figure could soar to R1 billion in the following financial year.

The ANC in government has already passed the Public Administration Management Bill through Parliament, which places a ban on public servants doing business with the state. In addition, President Zuma’s State of the Nation Address this year mentioned the establishment of a Central Tender Board to deal with all tenders across the country, and the appointment of a chief procurement officer to adjudicate on issues of pricing and ensure procedural fairness.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) manifesto is quite similar, but it seeks to undergird Chapter 9 institutions with greater budget allocations - which have always been a bugbear and stumbling block to these constitutionally mandated bodies to do their work effectively.

The DA also promised to prohibit public officials from conducting business with the state; commit itself to realising and maintaining a high standard of professionalism in the public administration; protect and invest in the independence of Chapter 9 institutions of the constitution and dismiss corrupt officials. It also said it would enhance accountability in government by reforming the electoral system; promote transparency in tender processes; prohibit the appointment of officials convicted of corruption, violent crime, fraud and theft; and implement lifestyle audits of politicians and public officials.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the ‘new kid on the block,’ has been causing a stir and focused on two key areas, though with little detail. These are to prohibit public officials from conducting business with the state, and to protect and invest in the independence of Chapter 9 institutions of the constitution. Among others, it also undertakes to increase, harness and enhance the efficiency of government institutions to avoid all forms of corruption, and abolish the use of private companies in fulfilling functions and duties government has to fulfil.

Both Agang South Africa and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) ran campaigns with a heavy focus on issues of corruption. Agang SA indicated that it would implement legislation to protect whistleblowers, while the UDM said it would establish a court specifically designed to deal with corruption.

At the end of the day however, the voters decided which parties best represent their interests. The results of the 7 May elections will in many ways be revealing of South Africans’ attitudes towards current levels of corruption, and parties’ commitment to transparent and accountable governance.

Judith February is senior researcher and Wilmont Gertse is an intern at the Institute for Security Studies’ Governance, Crime and Justice Division.

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