Can Citizen Action Alone Tackle Lawlessness and Corruption in South Africa?

You live in a society where everybody steals. Do you choose to steal? The probability that you will be caught is low, because the police are busy chasing other thieves, and even if you do get caught, the chances of your being punished severely for a crime that is so common are low. Therefore, you too steal. By contrast, if you live in a society where theft is rare, the chances of your being caught and punished are high, you choose not to steal.

This observation by Italian International Monetary Fund economist, Paolo Mauro, in his March 1998 article in ‘Finance and Development’ explains in broad terms how lawlessness naturally flows from systemic corruption. It raises an interesting challenge to the recently released National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 by the South African National Planning Commission, which highlights as a priority the promotion of an active citizenry to ‘strengthen development, democracy and accountability’. Other priorities include an effective government, a capable developmental state and ‘strong leadership throughout society’, driven by national government and Parliament. However, how do we get active citizenry in the constructive sense if there is a belief that corruption is widespread within the state?

Corruption leads to a transfer of public funds into private coffers, general government inefficiency, closed markets and lower economic growth. Mauro warns that if corruption continues unabated, and most people accept it as a necessary evil within which to do business or engage with the state, there is no incentive for the citizenry to stop it or not to participate in it. Has South Africa reached this point? Can citizen action alone curb corruption and lawlessness?

At the heart of the problem lies the concept of civic morality. Civic morality, like the concept ‘ubuntu’, centres on trust and reciprocity of individuals and groups. According to Polish academic Natalia Letski in her 2006 article ‘Investigating the Roots of Civic Morality’, civic morality requires a collective sense of responsibility for the public good where public gains are seen as far more important than individual gains. The pursuit of public good deters participation in corrupt activities or free riding and enhances a general willingness to comply with rules and norms. Ultimately, public order and the rule of law become easier to implement and resources can be redirected away from law enforcement as the means to deter negative behaviour towards socio-economic growth programmes.

Civic morality goes further than individual trust and compliance. All governments need to maintain a status of legitimacy among their citizens, which in turn will increase the citizenry’s willingness to comply with the rules made by the state. Therefore, a democratically-elected government is constantly measured by its responsiveness, impartiality and accountability. Letski’s research suggests that the strongest determinants of civic morality are confidence in state institutions as well as the perceived (rather than actual) quality of these institutions. It follows that if any public agency or its officials do not meet the standards required by the citizenry, the public is likely to start breaking the law and find excuses for dishonesty.

In 2005, the National Prosecuting Authority undertook a national survey to test South Africans’ level of compliance with laws and their public confidence in the criminal justice system. The unpublished research showed that most South Africans are not lawless or corrupt and they respect state institutions. Close on 90 percent of the respondents frowned upon general suggestions of bribery, cheating, breaking of traffic or other laws and the misuse of state resources. They displayed a high level of trust in state institutions such as Parliament (84 percent), the government (85 percent), the public service (82 percent), South African Police Service (SAPS) (79 percent), prosecution services (78 percent) and the courts (82 percent). However, they had far less trust in the officials who worked in these institutions. Only 37 percent trusted politicians, 50 percent police officers, 48 percent prosecutors and 54 percent magistrates.

Over the last seven years, however, trust in state institutions has started to decline substantially. The 2011 South African Reconciliation Barometer, released by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, found that only 65 percent of South Africans have confidence in the national government, while 61 percent have confidence in Parliament, 56 percent in provincial government and only 43 percent in local government.

The 2011 South African Social Attitudes Survey by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) found that 74 percent of all South Africans believed that corruption has increased in the past three years. Two-thirds of the respondents (66 percent) felt that bribery and abuse of power for personal gain were prevalent among members of the SAPS. A substantial minority of people also perceived widespread corruption among Home Affairs officials (38 percent), national politicians (37 percent), officials awarding public tenders (37 percent) and people working in the judicial services (36 percent).

Nonetheless, it seems 82 percent of South Africans believed that citizens could make a difference in the fight against corruption. However, the HSRC survey also suggests that citizens do not believe that the state is doing enough to tackle corruption. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) felt that the national government and Parliament are not doing enough to fight corruption. Lending support to Mauro’s thesis, 33 percent believed that corruption flourished because of inadequate punishment by the judicial system. Other reasons citizens believed that corruption occurred include the lack of transparency in public spending (30 percent), close links between business and politics (29 percent), and the acceptance of society that corruption is part of daily life (28 percent).

United States-based political scholar Eric M. Uslander’s research findings presented in a 2004 book chapter, ‘Trust and Corruption’, found that corruption impacts heavily on societal trust. He cites a Chinese proverb also popular among South Africans that ‘the fish rots from the head down’, to explain why corruption becomes widespread in society. He and others argue that leadership with integrity is the only way ‘an honest government, one that enforces the law fairly and provides little opportunity for private gain, lead people to have greater faith in each other’.

What should then be required from an active citizenry? The NDP 2030 predicts that if we as a collective fight corruption, by 2030 we will have a ‘corruption-free society, a high adherence to ethics throughout society and a government that is accountable to its people’. However, a collective does not only refer to ordinary South Africans. The plan is premised on the requirement that we need an active citizenry plus an effective government led by strong and competent cadres. Therefore, as a citizenry, the ultimate protest will be for citizens to unify against corruption in all its forms by insisting on strong and honest political leadership by defending the constitution and the institutions that protect our democratic freedom such as an independent judiciary, the media and human rights-based civil society organisations.

- Lizette Lancaster, Manager: Crime and Justice Hub, Crime and Criminal Justice Programme, Institute for Security Studies (ISS). This article was first published in the ISS Today. It is republished here with the permission of ISS.

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