We have the tools to fight corruption

Just over two-thirds of South Africans polled by FutureFact last year agreed with the statement “South Africa will over time minimize the scourge of corruption”. Some observers, noting the imminent spectacle of the country’s president going on trial for corruption, would say South Africans were an optimistic lot. Global Integrity, a Washington-based NGO which puts out what is increasingly regarded as the gold standard of international corruption indices,  gives grounds for a less cynical view in its latest annual report, released on Wednesday.

Transparency International, which pioneered corruption rankings, deals in inherently bias-prone perceptions. More empirical in its approach, GI deploys peer-reviewed field researchers to answer a comprehensive list of questions – 320 this time – from which it calculates what it calls an Integrity Indicators.

The focus is not on corruption per se but on what bulwarks a society has in place against it. Do citizens have access to their government? Can they see what it’s doing? Can they safely, affordably, and successfully seek redress when it does wrong? Can they hold it accountable at the polls? Can they rely on their laws and institutions to keep the kleptocrats at bay?

In South Africa’s young democracy, suggests GI, the answers to these questions remain, the death of the Scorpions notwithstanding, relatively in the affirmative.

For the present report, GI examined 58 countries – 12 from sub-Saharan Africa,  13 from Asia, 3 from the Pacific, 15 from (mostly Eastern) Europe,  6 from Latin America, 8 from the Middle East and North Africa and one, Canada, from North America. TI, by contrast, ranks 180 in an altogether less rigorous fashion.  Among the 58, South Africa had the sixth best score, one point behind Canada, two ahead of Chile, and level pegging with Italy (with which we are also paired in TI’s scoring).

Of course, parity with Italy, perceived or actual, may strike some as not the most signal accomplishment, but it is important to remember what GI is measuring. Italy’s citizens do not have to tolerate as much corruption as, evidently, they do: the safeguards exist. Indeed, Italy leads the pack in terms of public access to government information (we lag somewhat). It also scores full marks for the anti-corruption laws on its books, as do we (and most others).  It does not do so well on implementation, though, scoring 71 out of a possible 100 to South Africa’s 75.

Indeed, overall, South Africa’s implementation gap – the difference between its score for de jure protections against corruption and how they function de facto – is among the narrowest at 14. That’s a good proxy to gauge respect for the rule of law. Poland and Japan are among the few who do better, with 9 and 14 respectively. At the other end of the scale is Uganda, which earns a perfect 100 for theory but a wretched 49 for practice. The average gap is 31.

South Africa’s other strengths include the integrity of its tax collection (full marks with Chile and Poland against an average of 80), the freedom of its media (92, second only to Japan, but with points lost for shoddy journalism), and the probity of its elections (100 again, way above the average, 65).

Unfortunately, while fraud-free voting is something South Africa can be proud of, South Africans have next to no recourse against political parties prostituting themselves to monied interests before and after the votes are cast.  Our political financing laws rate a truly dismal 8. Even Angola ekes out a 34.

GI says in its white paper on methodology, “the Integrity Indicators identify strengths and weaknesses in the national anti-corruption architecture and serve as a roadmap for possible reforms.”  That makes them especially valuable.  GI’s full 267 page report on South Africa is on the web.   It’s worth a read both by those who exaggerate the extent to which corruption has metastasised in South Africa and those who would deny there is a problem.

The proposition that South Africa “will over time minimize the scourge of corruption” is defensible.

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