Is corruption a human condition, everywhere?

The arrest of FIFA officials in the past week has brought discussions on corruption to the fore again. For South Africans who are very concerned with the corruption in our country, this offers an opportunity to look at corruption in a global context. The fact of the matter is that corruption has been prevalent throughout the ages in all parts of the world. Even though some countries and institutions have managed to curb corruption to a meaningful extent, the unfortunate truth appears to be that corruption is a human condition. We need to constantly and aggressively tackle corruption if we are to make headway.

is-corruption-a-human-condition-everywhereWhat causes corruption?

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines corruption as “dishonest or illegal behaviour especially by powerful people (such as government officials or police officers)”. Robert Klitgaard, who is an expert on corruption, came up with a corruption formula where corruption (C) = monopoly (M) + discretion (D) – accountability (A).

The first term means that in a country or institution where the leadership has a great deal of power, either because it is a dictatorship (no elections being held) or where opposition is weak, corruption is likely to be much greater than in a democratic or free country or institution. The second term means that corruption is more likely in a country or institution where there is limited transparency of processes, where processes are not clearly defined and where there is limited oversight. The third term means that in an environment where corruption goes unpunished or where punishment is light, corruption is much more likely to be prevalent.

What I take from this equation is that, especially in large institutions controlling large amounts of money, corruption is the most likely outcome, unless it is actively countered. Unfortunately, history bears this out. There has been no civilisation, no group of people, and no country that has been totally free from corruption, even the most successful ones. From ancient Egypt, through the Greek and Roman Empires, the Chinese civilisation and Europe in the middle ages, corruption was a serious issue. Corruption has continued in the developed world during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Today, the countries that score the lowest on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index tend to be in the developing world and are dictatorships (like North Korea), failed states (like Somalia or arguably Sudan) or countries suffering from conflict (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya).
In 2014, SA ranked 67 out of 174 countries, scoring higher than Brazil, Italy, India, Thailand, Mexico, Argentina and Iran.
However, there were a number of developing countries that attracted a better score than SA, including Barbados, Chile, the UAE, Botswana, Mauritius and Namibia.

How do successful countries counter corruption?
In 2014, the four countries that were considered the least corrupt were Denmark, New Zealand, Finland and Sweden. These countries typically have “high levels of press freedom, open budget processes and strong accountability mechanisms”.
With the exception of the UAE (and maybe Hong Kong), all of the top 25 countries in the Corruption Perception Index were democracies where power changes hands between different political parties from time to time.

A key feature of scandals in the developed world over recent years, whether it was Watergate, Elliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich, the Chen Shui-ban Scandals or the Profumo Affair is that they typically lead to resignations or arrests (although there are exceptions like Silvio Berlusconi). In many developing countries though, corruption often goes unchecked and unpunished for years.
The key differences between countries that are generally prone to corruption and countries that are less prone to corruption are that

  1. it is easier to identify corruption in certain countries because of transparent and open processes;
  2. there are more likely to be whistleblowers in countries less prone to corruption;
  3. the press is more likely to report on corruption;
  4. the people are more likely to be outraged by corruption;
  5. political parties (companies) are more likely to demand resignations from or pursue prosecutions of perpetrators;
  6. opposition parties are more likely to be strengthened by corruption from the ruling party (potentially to the point where they can take power); and
  7. the political process allows for a peaceful transition of power.

is-corruption-a-human-condition-everywhere-1What about South Africa?

In SA, many of the conditions above are in place for the country to fall in the less corrupt group, but there are issues that are amiss. It appears as if it is sometimes more difficult to identify and prove corruption in SA, because there is sometimes a lack of transparency and poorly defined processes. Especially when it comes to tender processes in SA, there is a great deal that can be done to make it more transparent. Rules around these processes should be more clearly defined and aggressively policed, while the processes themselves should be made public knowledge.

We have whistleblowers in SA, but very often these individuals are vilified, which creates a serious disincentive in the fight against corruption. The way in which the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela has been treated is a clear example of this.

We certainly have a free press in SA and there is a great deal of reporting on corruption. Large parts of our population are also outraged by corruption. However, outrage has not been sufficient to put a meaningful dent in the support of our ruling party (considering recent election results). This may well be because most people are on balance happy with the delivery that Government provides to them rather than them being oblivious to corruption issues. If so, there is a meaningful risk to the ruling party that they will lose support going forward unless issues are addressed. It would be interesting to see polls surrounding Nkhandla, Eskom and President Zuma’s approval rating and how these are changing over time.

In SA, there sometimes seems to be a resistance from the ruling party to demand resignations and pursue prosecutions of the perpetrators of corruption. Where these occur, they are often at a relatively low level (e.g. Guptagate) or they are mired in controversy (NPA, Hawks, Crime Intelligence, SAPS, SARS).
Opposition parties have been strengthened and are likely to be strengthened in future if Government does not do enough to address the concerns of the people surrounding corruption. However, it is not yet clear whether this trend will be sufficient to jeopardise the ANC’s majority support in major municipalities, provinces and nationally. The municipal elections of 2016 could give us a strong indication of this trend.
Finally, we have evidence that our political process would allow for a peaceful transition of power. We have seen a peaceful transition of power from the National Party to the ANC in 1994, we saw the peaceful departure of President Mbeki in 2008 and we saw a peaceful transition of power in the Western Cape in 2009. There are concerns though that further transitions may be more difficult. Time will tell.

Corruption unfortunately appears to be a human condition. It has occurred and occurs everywhere regardless of country, creed or institution unless the necessary steps and processes are in place to counter it. It is not sufficient to simply depend on the good ethics and morals of our leaders. To counter corruption globally and in SA, we need to demand transparency, create a conducive environment for whistle blowing, ensure freedom of the press, be outraged by infractions, prosecute offenders, remove support for parties that condone such behaviour and maintain a free democratic process.
Many of these processes are in place in SA, but there are warning signs and we need to be vigilant. Continue to ask the difficult questions, be brave enough to speak out, demand accountability and withdraw support if positive steps are not taken.

is-corruption-a-human-condition-everywhere-2Do you agree that corruption is a human condition? Do you concede that SA is better positioned than many other countries? Do you think that things will get better in SA? What are you doing to reduce corruption? I would love to see your feedback.
In the mean time, keep your talking straight!
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.”>