Corruption: Strategies Require the Right Conceptual Framework

I have lately become convinced that the nefarious terms “corruption”, “nepotism”, “cronyism” and “tenderpreneurship” are becoming so entrenched in descriptions of government in South Africa that it is becoming impossible to think about government factually, taking into account that not all inefficiencies in government are immediately corrupt. It is becoming an assumption that government as a whole is corrupt – full stop.

On a particularly cold day a few weeks ago, while the media continued to flame the fire of discontent, I was given the opportunity to expand my own thinking around the issue of corruption during a two-day symposium hosted by the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) and Innovations for Successful Societies Programme (IISP). This article serves to summarise some of what was discussed. This thinking is not mine, but must be credited to the speakers which included: Laura Bacon and Gabriel Kuris from Princeton University; Ivor Chipkin, Linda Chisholm, Jeremy Cronin, Simon Dagut, Barry Gilder, Kelly Gillespie, Richard Levin, Pascal Moloi, Anne McLennan, Bongani  Ngqulunga and Ivan Pillay.

After two days of presentations from people who dealt with the topic from different standpoints, sometimes approaching the topic from their own experiences in government departments or as advisors to government, and sometimes as academics who have studied the public administrative service, it was largely agreed that corruption can be understood in many ways, and not always strictly in the contemporary sense of the appropriation, for private use, of resources or goods arising from public or official office. Secondly, corruption is not always about immorality or lack of goodness.

An element of corruption is non-compliance and, as explained by Ivor Chipkin, is indicative of weak institutions. Absences in processes, contradictions in policy processes and dysfunctional processes can lead to what is perceived as corruption, but is really faulty aspects of the administrative environment which reinforces non-compliance.

While commentators in the audience felt that it is not satisfactory to discard the moral dimension of corruption entirely, there was consensus on the idea that what is perceived as corruption cannot always be framed in this singular, restrictive way and that different truths of corruption require different anti-corruption efforts. Consider “small corruption” versus “big corruption” or “administrative corruption” versus “political corruption”.

While case studies of anti-corruption efforts showed that it is possible for a small group of committed individuals to decrease corrupt activities, it also shows that “geographical” scope (for example city-wide corruption) can play a role in determining the effectiveness and ease of anti-corruption efforts. When corruption is institutionalised, as a few speakers agree is the current situation in South Africa, the efforts require a more radical approach, one in which the entire system is overhauled; suggested by one commentator as “political reform”.

Scholars from Princeton University gave practical advice for anti-corruption efforts, suggesting looking at corruption from the viewpoint of the corrupted individual. Why is the person corrupt and what will happen if he or she is exposed? Six strategies suggested include: eliminating opportunity through streamlining procedures, creating a reward system, creating cross pressures by appealing to friends or family, shifting public norms but educating the public as to standard operating procedures, providing notice of what to expect from certain processes and seizing the moral high-ground by appealing to peoples’ better natures. While I admired the strategies and felt that they had some value, it wasn’t clear how, if corruption is already institutionalised, these strategies would lead to state-wide change.

How corruption became institutionalised in South Africa’s public administrative systems was also discussed. While the prevailing consensus looked upon history as the source of current corruption, and some even suggested that all states are corrupt, it wasn’t certain whether everyone agreed on what these historical processes looked like. While many speakers gave an opinion, it didn’t become ultimately clear as to how corruption came to look as it does today. Barry Gilder noted: “Corruption has become a political ping-pong ball…driven largely by generalised notions (implied if not stated) such as “all power corrupts”, “all politics is corrupt”, “all liberation movements-become-governments become corrupt”, “the ANC is inherently corrupt” and, the worst of these, “Black people are by nature corrupt”.

But let us explore some of the explanations of corruption. One prevalent explanation was that corruption had some beginnings in the administrative activities which occurred in homelands during Apartheid, which I gather from the speakers were incredibly corrupt. From what I understand of the process following this, when democracy occurred these individuals were absorbed into public service, the same service which we have today. With this absorption, their “normal” activities carried on, becoming entrenched in the system. This entrenchment echoes the idea which I have heard mentioned more than once in conversations with people: that everyone is doing it, and to be able to climb the ladder, you have to do it too or have friends in the right places. This idea is supported, in part, by the idea that neopatrimonialism (appropriating public goods for relational/familial use) has contributed to corruption (nepotism or cronyism?) within the public service – you look after your family and your friends first. The “homelands explanation” points a finger at the way that Apartheid impacted on social and institutional activities. It was suggested that corruption was necessary in the homelands and that Apartheid is largely to blame for the administrative and political corruption we face today.

I was particularly intrigued by explanations of the State and answers to what is essentially the question of what the normative state of the State is. Simon Dagut feels that corruption can be considered the normal state and efficiency the unusual state. Dealing with corruption, therefore, requires creating the “unusual” conditions of state efficiency, not “stamping corruption out”. He suggests that the politics or the design of the state is not at issue, but rather the culture and tradition that matters.

The SARS experience, which was presented by Ivan Pillay, was interesting in its explanation of the principles which contributed to anti-corruption measures. The presentation also showed that SARS took a systemic approach to the issue, guiding the entire process towards efficiency, enforcement and responsiveness. They adopted a compliance model which asserts that most people will do the right thing, if they know the terms, and if you make it easy to comply. However, enforcement must be legitimate and the playing field must be impartial. The principle suggests that all are equal before the “law”, otherwise known as the tax collector.

What is clear from all of these explanations is that generalised notions of corruption are largely false. Generalisations about an activity which actually doesn’t have a linear explanation are entrenched within the South African psyche, but lead us nowhere in our quest to understand and overcome corruption. While I left the two day event a little more aware of this, I will still left uncertain as to way forward.

When it comes to strategies for overcoming corruption, what interested me most was the presentation on SARS anti-corruption efforts. While the issue of leadership was downplayed, I felt that this was a significant part of the success. Leadership based on principles, using a grounded philosophical approach with elements of integrity and constitutionalism, seemed to me to be the opposite of corruption and nepotism, and a means through these sinister aspects of a government department can be overcome. Professor Richard Levin spoke of the institutional culture of entitlement and impunity, a viewpoint which I can infer is held by a vast quantity of disgruntled South Africans. While cultural reform may be necessary, how this is done is the difficult part. Professor Levin hit the nail on the head when he suggested that there need to be consequences for non-compliance and poor performance, consequences which I feel should be implemented fairly and universally, creating a new culture of compliance. But this culture needs to start somewhere. While he suggests a part for civil society, I believe the beginnings of anti-corruption efforts needs to start at the place where it is thought to be happening the most; within the government. This includes improving systems to ensure efficiency, compliance and good performance. We also need to approach corruption as a symptom of immorality. How this can be done is uncertain, but comments are welcome.

By: Claire Martens

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Realising Rights bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Legal Resources Centre. The Legal Resources Centre is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.

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The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law clinic established in South Africa in 1979

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