For the past few months, I have been engaged as part of the country’s National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS) committee. Comprised of a diverse range of people from civil society, government and trade unions, the process has been rigorous and offers some key takeouts as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation debate closed out in Parliament this week.
As he rightly highlighted, a lack of integrity of people in power remains a critical problem, and undermines fair, equal and inclusive development in South Africa. Insidious levels of corruption and mistrust is a great disincentive for participation, especially among young people, who feel alienated from contemporary political culture – as evidenced in last year’s election. Ramaphosa signaled a renewed political will to “turn the tide against corruption in public institutions” but any attempt to build accountability will need to be decisive and consistent.
While the speech struck the right notes and showed commitment, rhetoric is no longer enough. Announcements including the NACS will solidify the country’s arsenal for fighting corruption in a number of ways, but there is a great need for us to consider the many social innovations of corruption and the role of citizens, both in abetting and fighting it. Stricter policies should be met with advocacy work that entrenches better behaviours, supports existing reforms and rewards integrity where we see it.
History supports this view of positive reinforcement. A few years ago, we learnt from the New York Times how local governments in New Taipei City and mainland China were using state lotteries as incentives to pay taxes, pick up dog poo and other essential civic responsibilities. NACS will seek to address both sides of this coin by being proactive as well as reactive. It looks at the kinds of solutions that could be implemented to promote transparency and accountability as a starting point. It also takes a ‘whole of society’ approach, looking at how the public can also engage in a way that promotes and supports people doing well in the civil service.
The NACS also advocates for much stronger whistleblower legislation – an important step if we’re going to grow the culture of accountability and transparency in SA. Our Protected Disclosures Act may be considered progressive on paper, but in practice its insistence that whistleblowers first report matters of fraud or corruption internally is a massive deterrent to people who may not be confident of their organization’s protection and cooperation.
In his address last week, the President emphasised that there is a need to “fix the fundamentals…root out corruption and strengthen the rule of law”. There are many things that need fixing in the state after years of hollowing out of many state institutions for nefarious motives. At this point it is important to ensure consequence management; and it is time that those who have been involved in corrupt activities are brought to book.
This is fundamental to restoring the rule of law and putting an end to impunity, which undermines the courage of public servants to blow the whistle on corruption. Last year, at a dialogue hosted by the Public Service Commission, I was astounded to hear the real and present fear senior management executives in government have of reporting corruption . For us to “…..upgrade our culture of reporting crime when we see it being committed” there must be zero tolerance for corruption.
In addition to consequence management, the government needs to employ capable candidates and ensure security of tenure. According to a study by the Institute for Race Relations, between 2009 and July 2017 the average tenure for Directors’ General was only 22 months. This high staff turnover at every level undermines stability and accountability. Part of the challenge is political interference in the appointment of Heads of Departments by political parties who want to ensure loyalty to the political agenda.
Civil society organisations such as the Public Affairs Research Institute have documented this in great detail. For instance, it supports a hybrid approach set out in the National Development Plan for appointments that include administrative and political staff. This recommends an administrative head of the public service who essentially manages key heads of department appointments and who works with the Public Service Commission on appropriate selection panels.
The government also needs to recruit people with the highest levels of integrity. Integrity in this case means going beyond what is lawful to what is both responsive and responsible. This is important for the rebuilding of trust and legitimacy in government. For instance, the ministerial handbook has all too often been used to justify financial excesses by the executive in a country experiencing high levels of inequality and tough economic circumstances. We need more responsive leadership that is accountable for the use of its power and committed to building a more inclusive society.
Contrary to common belief, there are many committed civil servants as we have seen through our Integrity Icon campaign. Integrity Icon aims to celebrate and connect civil servants who display the highest levels of integrity in their work. While a lack of integrity should be punished, we also need to change the narrative that the entire civil service is corrupt, and work to support reformers to rebuild the social compact.
Part of fixing the fundamentals should include highlighting “positive deviance” in government and acknowledging and “faming” civil servants. This helps to motivate reformers and counter the perception of the futility in public engagement.
It is possible to turn the tide on corruption, but it needs clear and consistent action. I have seen through participation in the National Anti-Corruption Strategy process that there are committed individuals in government, civil society and business working towards solutions. This strategy needs buy in from leadership from all sections of society and the President has sent the right signal by committing to being a champion for these efforts.
Dadisai Taderera is the Country Director for Accountability Lab South Africa, with almost a decade’s experience in democracy, governance and social justice.