IJR Policy Brief No 2 On corruption in South Africa: An alternative interpretation for the case of the Police Service

By Lucia Tiscornia
Pages: 12
Dimensions: A4
Publisher: IJR
Distributor: IJR
Date of publication: November 2011
Price: free
Only available electronically



When it comes to corruption, there is no North-South divide. Neither is it a problem of the centre versus the periphery, or the poor versus the rich. In many accounts, it is presented as a global malaise that thrives as a result of weak institutional arrangements that allow enough room for manoeuvre on the verge of illegality. South Africa, despite the apparent increase in corruption coverage, is not an exception. With increasing frequency, the media, NGOs and academia are drawing attention to the pervasiveness of corruption across society. They highlight the illicit or illegitimate activities of public officials, point to the threat that corruption poses to the creation of a healthy democracy, and present analyses of potential causes and remedies. Its increasing prominence on the national agenda has coincided in recent years with the escalation of protests (often violent) demanding improved quality and quantity of public services. It does not require an expert to connect the dots: when practices that allow the inappropriate use of public funds are entrenched, it becomes a structural impediment to socio-economic and political inclusion, and threatens the consolidation of democratic practice in the longer term.

There is broad consensus about the importance of internal institutional safeguards to discourage corruption within various arms of government, as well as the need for dedicated anti-corruption bodies to fight it. Yet, the South African case seems to challenge this assumption. Despite having a comprehensive suite of laws that govern rights of access, financial management and service delivery in the public sector, and an impressive array of oversight institutions (Asmal 2007), corruption in this sphere seems to have become increasingly rampant. Although there are supervision mechanisms, corruption persists. The question is why.

If we were to regard corruption as an essentially managerial problem, answers to its eradication could be sought simply in administrative reforms to make managerial practices more watertight. It is argued here that the remedy is not that simple. This paper seeks to show that institutional performance cannot be divorced from the social environment within which it operates. If corruption is understood and analysed as embedded in social relationships, then, managerial solutions alone will not suffice. This is particularly relevant to South Africa, with its exceptionally high levels of social inequality, manifested not only in income level disparities but also in access to services.

Given the issues highlighted in the recent Public Protector reports on the procurement of offices for the South African Police Service (SAPS) and subsequent repercussions, this paper takes its cue from the saga to shed light on the questions of what corruption is, its effects in terms of institutional performance and its implications for governance, considering the broader socio-political context and how it affects the very notion and practice of corruption.