Fighting corruption

by Deon Rossouw: CEO of The Ethics Institute and an Extraordinary Professor in Philosophy at Stellenbosch University.
In its recently released Diagnostic Overview, the National Planning Commission (NPC) identified corruption as one of the nine major factors that prevents South Africa from alleviating poverty and inequality and from achieving the objectives of the South African Constitution.

The section of the Diagnostic Overview that deals with South Africa’s corruption challenge, defines it as “the misuse of an official position for private gain”. Corruption is identified as a priority in the Diagnostic Overview, because it “undermines state legitimacy and service delivery”. It can also be added that corruption distorts market competition, increases the cost of doing business, and decreases the ease of conducting business.

Recognising corruption as a major ailment that impedes the development of South Africa is crucial if we wish to turn this growing tide. The Special Investigating Unit estimates that a loss of between 20-25% of state procurement of around R180 billion per year can be attributed to corruption.

However, more than recognition of the challenge is needed. Solutions need to be found. Since corruption is increasingly embedded in organisational structures and cultures, there is no quick-and-easy fix for this problem. It requires involvement of multiple actors as well as personal and institutional change.

It starts at the top

Without political will from the top at national, provincial and local government level, calls for the fight against corruption remain empty slogans that only breed cynicism. Anti-corruption institutions can themselves lose legitimacy when political will is absent.

Leaders need to be beyond reproach when it comes to corruption and conflicts of interest. They should set a personal example of abhorring corruption. It is exactly a track record for not tolerating corruption that gives credibility to messages and efforts from leaders to stamp out corruption.

Leadership commitment should also manifest through clear communication to the rank and file within their sphere of influence that corruption will not be tolerated. And when corruption occurs, those who have been involved should be held to account. There should be clear and dire consequences for those who are found guilty of corruption.

A promising development is the introduction of a black list for officials dismissed for corruption on local government level. The recently promulgated Municipal Systems Amendment Act bars officials dismissed on charges of corruption from working in a municipality for a period of 10 years. This kind of intolerance for corruption should not only be implemented for the smaller fish on local government level, but should be escalated to the provincial and national government levels.

Professional public service ethos

The very same Municipal Systems Amendment Act also addresses another major problem area that calls for an urgent solution: political interference in the civil service, and more specifically so-called cadre deployment. In terms of the said new Act, municipal and senior managers are prohibited from serving in top positions in party structures on the regional, provincial and national level.

Political appointments in top civil service positions ultimately fuel corruption, as it sacrifices a public interest orientation for a narrow party political interest orientation. Once more this arrangement needs to be escalated to higher levels of government.

One of the strongest antidotes to corruption is a professional public service corps imbued with a public service ethos. There needs to be sufficient daylight between the public service and the government of the day, at all employment levels. Obviously there is need for interaction and consultation between the government and the public service, but a career in the public service needs to stands distinctly separate from a political career. Political regimes and political office bearers should come and go without disrupting the civil service.

A public service ethos needs to prevail that fosters a sense of commitment to the well-being of the public. Upward mobility in the civil service should be based on performance and a demonstration of public service commitment and not on political loyalty. A sense of pride and professionalism amongst civil servants has to replace the currently all too common focus on self-interest, political opportunism and financial greed. The goat-feeds-where-it-is-tied-up syndrome needs to be expelled from the public service in order to create a culture that is conducive to public service and averse to corruption.

Corruption prevention capacity

Specialised expertise and capacity is also needed to prevent, detect and act against corruption in the public service. A recent audit on the anti-corruption capacity of 86 government departments on national and provincial level conducted by the Ethics Institute of South Africa on behalf of the DPSA found that top management vigilance and involvement in initiating, implementing and reviewing corruption prevention is a crucial success factor in the fight against corruption. Equally crucial is the capacity and expertise to investigate and resolve detected or reported incidents of corruption. A recent report by the Public Service Commission demonstrated the glaring lack of capacity in this regard. It was found that in 63% of cases reported to the anti-corruption hotline between 2004 and 2010, no feedback was received from the department to whom the corruption report was referred for investigation.

This lack of capacity to properly investigate reported cases of corruption does not only hamper government departments, but also specialised national agencies such as the Special Investigations Unit that does not have sufficient capacity to investigate all cases referred to them.

Corruption is not only a public sector problem

Corruption prevention initiatives and policies are often geared towards preventing corruption in the government and the civil service, without giving due recognition to the role of other players in society to prevent corruption. In this regard civil society, labour unions, organised business and the media also have a vital role to play. First of all they need to ensure that they do not participate in corrupt practices themselves, and they have to lead against corruption in their own spheres.

Ensuring that state legitimacy is not undermined by corruption will take a concerted effort where all spheres of society will need to play their part.

Useful resources:
The Ethics Institute
The Ethics Institute is an independent public institute producing original thought leadership and offering a range of services and products related to organisational ethics.
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