Deviations from prescribed rules governing supply chains often indicate that environments are vulnerable to fraud and corruption. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Deviations from prescribed rules governing supply chains often indicate that environments are vulnerable to fraud and corruption. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

A central theme of Transparency International’s 2018 corruption perceptions index is the relationship between democracy and corruption.

Certainly one can’t deny the threats to democracy in very diverse countries across the globe. Nor can one deny increasing levels of corruption or the fact that in many countries attacks on the democracy coincide with increasing levels of corruption — think about the US, Turkey, India, Hungary, Brazil, to name a few. And think about our country — does our experience evidence a relationship between our democracy and corruption?

PODCAST: Listen to more commentary on the topic.

On the one hand, to sustain corruption on the scale that characterised the state capture era, key institutions of the democracy had themselves to be captured. This is particularly true of the institutions of accountability — those institutions that are charged with oversight of the executive.

We saw how, to ensure that former president Jacob Zuma’s conduct in the arms deal was protected from law enforcement, the Scorpions had to be destroyed. We saw then how, largely through abuse of the president’s powers of appointment, the Hawks, successor to the Scorpions, Crime Intelligence and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had to be bent and twisted to ensure that they too protected Zuma and his cronies from accountability and from bearing the consequences of their conduct.

We saw the same thing happen to the SA Revenue Service (Sars). We saw parliament turned into a toy telephone through which the executive barked its orders but which didn’t take calls from those who elected it.

The fightback

On the other hand, we saw how other institutions of our democracy led the fight back against state capture. Robust and independent civil society, media and judiciary are key indicators of a functioning democracy and in our country, these are widely acknowledged for their leading role in confronting state capture. And who can forget the role that the public protector’s office under Thuli Madonsela played in holding the executive to account?

And so, while corruption has compromised key institutions of our democracy, other key democratic institutions have confronted corruption and state capture.

There can be little doubt that the fightback against state capture has borne fruit. In 2018 we saw new boards appointed at previously captured state-owned enterprises (SOEs) like Eskom, Transnet, Denel and SAA. We have seen these boards begin to sweep the dirt out of the executive suites of these SOEs.

We have seen Tom Moyane driven out of Sars and Shaun Abrahams removed from the NPA. We have all been engrossed in the proceedings of commissions of enquiry into state capture, Sars and the Public Investment Corporation. We have seen the rot at the NPA laid bare in the enquiry into the destructive conduct of leading officials in that critically important institution. We have seen corrupt cabinet ministers like Mosebenzi Zwane, Des van Rooyen and Malusi Gigaba put out to pasture.

But we are only at the foothills of a very high mountain. Not only do we have to remain vigilant in exposing continuing acts of corruption — and there are plenty of those — but we have to contribute positively to rebuilding those vital institutions that were crushed in the state capture era.

The best antidote

A prime lesson from the bitter experience of the state capture era is that corruption undermines democracy and, conversely, that democracy is the best antidote to corruption.

Therefore, the key task for opponents of corruption is to support the institutions and culture of democracy. In order to do so, we must aggressively defend ourselves against attacks from those who seek to undermine independent civil society organisations. We must also remain vigilant in defending the independence of the judiciary and press freedom.

But it is as important that we contribute to strengthening the formal institutions of the democracy.

We must demand access to the deliberations of parliamentary committee hearings. We must demonstrate by the quality of our submissions that we are a valuable resource in the making of policy and legislation. We must ensure the effective enforcement of those laws intended to support democracy, such as the law regulating party political funding.

We must protect vital institutions of accountability such as the NPA and the auditor-general. We must expose the conduct of those who, like the present public protector, have let democracy down. And we must help build and capacitate those community-based institutions of democracy such as school governing bodies.

The narrative of state capture centres on the capture of institutions like Eskom, Transnet and other state-owned enterprises. But even more damaging has been the capture of institutions, such as parliament, that are charged with holding accountable those and other public institutions.

A prime task of organisations like Corruption Watch is challenging and assisting those institutions and their members to take their rightful place as representatives of the people who have elected them.

This will determine whether or not the powerful executive institutions serve the people of SA or whether they once again become feeding troughs for those who prey on ordinary South Africans in order to advance their own greedy interests.

• Lewis is Corruption Watch executive director.