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Corruption stunts democracy, development

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Picture: Supplied / GCIS / Taken on November 8, 2023– President Cyril Ramaphosa at the opening session of the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council’s National Dialogue on building a corruption-free South Africa at the Birchwood Hotel and OR Tambo Conference Centre in Boksburg, Gauteng, November 8. Delivering the keynote address, Ramaphosa says among others that corruption, besides the money lost and services not delivered, is a real threat to democracy and to citizens’ faith in the institutions that should defend their hard-won democracy.

By Gwinyai Taruvinga

Corruption has been viewed as a great hindrance to developing countries in the Global South. Studies that analyse the impacts of corruption, especially on the African Continent, often point to how the lack of development can be linked to corruption, especially by the elites in society. Funds meant for development projects have often been directed elsewhere much to the detriment of communities that need these funds.

Transparency International looks at corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”, and this can be linked to several countries on the African Continent. When measuring corruption in countries, Transparency International uses a score out of 100 with a score of 100 being “very clean”. An African regional overview shows that the top scorers on the Continent are Seychelles with 70, and Botswana and Cabo Verde with a score of 60.

At the other end of the spectrum, countries that are performing poorly are Burundi and Equatorial Guinea (both with a score of 17). South Sudan and Somalia have a score of 13 and 12 respectively. South Africa (with a score of 43) has over the years seen several cases of corruption coming to the fore and although the country fares better than other African countries there is still cause for concern.

At the just concluded National Dialogue on Anti-Corruption hosted in Boksburg, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech focused on how corruption in the country affects the relationship between the state and its citizens.

One of the key points he made was how democracy in the country could be negatively impacted if institutions fail to play their role. One of the key elements of strong institutions is the perception that citizens have of them. Within corrupt countries, citizens often view institutions as vehicles to further the interests of the powerful and this is important within the South African context.

An example that sums up Ramaphosa’s point is the revelations from the Giyani water project. Like many projects that fail, it was meant to improve water access to citizens in Giyani, but corruption reared its ugly head. The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) revealed that the (cost of the) water project in Giyani was increased from R90 million to R2.2 billion. The total cost is believed to have come up to R4.1bn and to add further to this, the tender for the project was awarded without following due process. The project itself was never completed and this has a direct impact on Giyani residents who still face water challenges.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, corruption had a significant impact on the citizenry. The former minister of health was placed on leave while there was an investigation of irregular contracts to the tune of millions. Corruption was also linked to the purchase of PPE where prices were either inflated or tenders were awarded to individuals with close ties to government officials. This provides another challenge that is posed by corruption as it could have huge ramifications for citizens.

The huge impact of corruption can also be linked to the functionality of state-owned entities such as the power utility, Eskom. In April this year, it was reported that the power utility was costing an average of R1bn a month due to corruption. As a result, the entity, among other challenges, was failing to provide electricity for the country. Much of 2023 has been dominated by power cuts and this can almost be directly linked to the impacts of state-owned enterprises. The Eskom example can be extended to other state-owned entities that have been incapacitated by corruption.

Another example which sums up corruption is the discussion on state capture, which was brought to light by the Zondo Commission. Ramaphosa referred to state capture to further shed light on the impacts of corruption on the relationship between the state and the citizenry. The president noted that “corruption has wounded our democracy and shaken people’s faith in our institutions”. “If corruption is not arrested, the greatest damage will not be in the funds stolen, the jobs lost, or services not delivered. The greatest damage will be to the belief in democracy itself.”

Within this context, corruption can strongly affect the social contract within the country. If citizens, as seen through state capture, deem the institutions that serve them to be corrupt or captured, the democracy in the country will likely suffer as a result.

The Zondo Commission showed the extent of how corruption was embedded within state institutions. The commission’s findings, which were made public, were an important step in ensuring that the country will not continue to be hamstrung by corruption. Despite the negative findings, the fact that they were made public goes a long way in protecting democracy in South Africa.

In August last year, Ramaphosa appointed the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council to assist the government in addressing the causes and consequences of corruption in the country. These measures are important in that they provide a way forward in addressing the corruption. South Africa’s Constitution stresses the importance of social justice, human dignity, accountability, transparency, and the rule of law.

Amartya Sen, a renowned economist, stresses the importance of democracy as a vehicle for economic development. Sen’s arguments can be summarised in understanding how the more democratic a country is the more likely that country is going to enjoy economic success.

With institutions being at the heart of democracy, these institutions mustn’t fall prey to being captured as seen through the findings of the Zondo Commission.

As seen at Eskom and other state-owned entities, corruption has a direct impact on the lives of citizens, and it must be nipped in the bud to ensure a functioning state for the South African populace.

Gwinyai Taruvinga is a post-doctoral fellow at the Wits Humanities Graduate Centre