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We are at last making some headway in our struggle against corruption. The most visible public evidence of this is the number of arrests and court appearances of high-profile politicians and public officials and their business cronies. But it runs deeper than this. 

The National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council (Nacac, of which I am a member) was appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in September last year. It recently convened a meeting with key stakeholders from the public sector and civil society, largely drawn from among the members of the reference group responsible for formulating the national anticorruption strategy. 

This engagement was particularly productive, marked by the quality of the participation of key law enforcement leaders, particularly the contributions of Shamila Batohi and Andy Mothibi, respectively heads of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the Special Investigating Unit. 

Put these together with Hawks head Gen Godfrey Lebeya, Financial Intelligence Centre head Xolisile Khanyile, SA Revenue Service (Sars) commissioner Edward Kieswetter, and auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke, and we have a team leading our anticorruption law enforcement effort that is as thoughtful and as committed as any in the rest of the world.

I’m not so naive as to think that the quality of the top leadership is always replicated throughout the institutions they head. These institutions — particularly the NPA, Hawks and Sars — were systematically decimated during the Jacob Zuma years and the process of turning them around is a lengthy and complex one.

Moreover, there are vital anticorruption institutions — think of the crime intelligence division of the SA Police Service (SAPS) — that remain, at best, on life support. Yet, I’m convinced that across most of our anticorruption law enforcement units we have a leadership that demands more respect and positive affirmation than they receive from the media and the commentariat.

Changing structures

A highlight of the Nacac retreat was an engagement with criminologist Christopher Stone, professor of practice of public integrity at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government. Stone identified the following traps into which anticorruption practitioners frequently fall:

  • The people trap — concentrating only on removing and prosecuting individuals without making changes to the structures that invite corruption. Those fighting corruption often imagine that the problem is mostly personal, not structural. This leads to strategies that focus almost exclusively on eliminating and punishing everyone who is corrupt, without changing the structures in which they operate. Focusing on reforming the structures while still eliminating the worst offenders, will allow us to implement our strategy quicker and more effectively.

The Nacac is mandated to examine the case for establishing a new anticorruption agency. There are an important range of functions that are inadequately catered for by the existing anticorruption agencies, for example public education and mobilisation and policy advice. Possibly the most important function inadequately catered for by the existing agencies is that of investigating systemic corruption. 

Take the Passenger Rail Agency SA and the Gauteng health department. To be sure, there are many rotten apples in both institutions, but the eye-watering breadth and depth of corruption in these organisations suggests the existence of deep structural problems. They suggest that the problems are not merely the existence of rotten apples but also of rotten barrels. These should be investigated and the management and structure of principal corruption-vulnerable functions — such as procurement — should be investigated. When these investigations expose criminal conduct by rotten apples, these should be referred to the appropriate criminal justice agency.

  • The independence trap — focusing on institutional independence without a corresponding focus on interdependence. Anticorruption institutions should certainly be as independent as possible from the politicians and officials over whom they have jurisdiction, but independence should not be mistaken for a licence to operate alone. Independence should be seen as the necessary foundation for effective collaboration with other institutions. Independence gives others confidence when working with you; it helps build trust between institutions working in partnership.
  • The centralisation trap — overly centralising the anticorruption authorities. Concentrating power in a single, centralised entity can seem attractive when fighting a powerful enemy, but it’s much more easily captured by corrupt forces than a decentralised system. A more resilient architecture includes multiple institutions each with their own distinctive role to play at national level, and delegated authority to structures at provincial and municipal levels.

A decentralised design also requires some co-ordinating and deconflicting mechanism. These are always imperfect; often the best they can do is align activities rather than tightly co-ordinate them. Still, a decentralised design with an adequate co-ordinating mechanism seems highly preferable to a single, centralised design.

  • The imbalance trap — focusing only on grand corruption or only on frontline corruption. The corruption citizens encounter on a daily basis — in their interactions with police, local service providers, licensing authorities and others — is distinct from the grand corruption that allows senior officials and their private sector partners to amass fortunes and cripple infrastructure. There are cautionary examples of countries focusing almost exclusively on one or the other of these. Credibility with the public over the medium or long-term requires maintaining attention on both.
  • The eradication trap — imagining that you can eradicate corruption and then relax. Corruption is not a foreign infection in an otherwise healthy body. It is the product of permanent pressures, incentives that will always tempt those with public authority to use it for private gain. Many imagine that they can put in place temporary responses that can be dismantled in a few years when the job is done; but that’s not how corruption works. The architecture must be permanent — maintaining integrity in government requires effort every day.

The anticorruption effort has to remain ahead of the curve. The form taken by corruption constantly mutates. The ubiquity of cybercrime is one example. Another is the clear evidence of the entry of organised crime into corruption. 

This speaks to the active participation of the police in all levels of corruption. It’s also accompanied by terrifying levels of violence. This is why reforming the SAPS itself is one of the most urgent tasks that must engage the anticorruption effort. It may also be the most difficult problem that we face.

• Lewis , a former trade unionist, academic, policymaker, regulator and company board member, was a cofounder and director of Corruption Watch.

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