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Chief justice Raymond Zondo. File photo: VELI NHLAPO
Chief justice Raymond Zondo. File photo: VELI NHLAPO

While the Zondo state capture commission laid bare the extent of entrenched corruption, few South Africans were truly shocked by the revelations. As if to underline how used to corruption the country’s people have become, the general sentiment in the wake of the recent floods in KwaZulu-Natal was resigned acceptance that government officials would plunder relief funds.  

However, in adopting this attitude of numb acceptance we risk forgetting the very real consequences for ordinary South Africans and the country’s international reputation. The recently released 2021 corruption perceptions index should provide an important wake-up call. 

Created by Transparency International, the biennial index ranks 180 countries and territories around the world by their perceived levels of public sector corruption. The results are given on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). About two-thirds of countries in the index scored below 50, meaning they’re seen to be more corrupt than clean. SA is among them.

The country scored 44 and was ranked joint 70th of 180 countries. Those nearest to SA on the list (Vanuatu, Jamaica and Tunisia) hardly present an image of emerging, stable, middle-income countries that we would like to project to investors. 

While SA’s score didn’t get any worse over the past year, it also didn’t get any better. That doesn’t reflect well on the reforms promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa when he ascended to the presidency in 2018. The lack of positive movement on the index should be concerning to everyone. While it may seem an academic exercise, many organisations view the index as an important tool when they’re conducting risk assessments on entering a country or investing in existing entities in that market. 

Those organisations understand that the index measures perceptions of public sector corruption, but a low ranking raises red flags and causes them to approach even private sector companies with circumspection. This makes sense. Would high-profile examples of private sector corruption such as at Tongaat, Steinhoff and African Bank have occurred if SA was not such a fertile environment for corruption in general? 

In the best-case scenario investors end up doing more intense due diligence on SA companies (not always a bad thing), and in the worst case they simply shy away from investing in the country entirely. In other words, SA’s place on the index means the country is always on the back foot when it comes to attracting the international investment it so desperately needs. 

On the other hand, should SA climb the index and join the minority of countries perceived to be more clean than corrupt, the equation changes dramatically. Investor confidence will improve, bringing with it increased job opportunities, increased tax revenue and improved capabilities when it comes to service delivery. 

With that in mind, what should SA do to improve perceptions of corruption in the country?  The first step is to be proactive rather than reactive. All too often if any action is taken against corrupt officials it happens only after the media has dragged the incidents out into the light. Public sector bodies need to investigate corrupt officials and deal with them quickly and publicly. 

While working on that, it is also important that the country move away from talk and towards action on incidents of corruption already in the public consciousness. The Zondo commission cost taxpayers more than R1bn. While it has resulted in McKinsey paying back hundreds of millions of rand in improper consulting fees to SAA and Eskom, for example, there have so far been few arrests or prosecutions arising from the commission’s reports. A few high-profile, rapid and successful prosecutions will go a long way to changing the perception that SA is soft on corruption and deterring others from taking part in corruption. 

Of course, getting to that point is easier said than done. But the rewards are absolutely worth the effort. Yet it is unlikely if those tasked with ridding SA of corruption (and those funding their efforts to do so) do not understand the imperative of doing so. 

Indices such as Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index don’t exist in a vacuum and can have a very real effect on investment. Successful efforts at curbing corruption promise rewards far beyond the immediate ones that come with doing so. The ripple effects they have could prove crucial to securing the country’s future.

Everyone, from political decisionmakers and the heads of state departments to prosecutors and ordinary members of the public, needs to understand that. 

• Mohamed is partner: head of corporate investigations & forensics at CMS SA.

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