When he appeared to give evidence to the SA Human Rights Commission inquiry into the July 2021 insurrection, President Cyril Ramaphosa indicated that SA had not become a failed state … yet. He went on to compare the good ship SA to the SS Titanic, not a good analogy, given the fate of the Titanic.
SA need not become a failed state if steps are taken to stop the rot. Foremost among these steps is the reform of the criminal justice administration to render it fit for the purpose of countering corruption effectively and efficiently.
Fortunately, the Constitutional Court has set the criteria and created the rules by which an anti-corruption entity should function.
Accountability Now recently sat down with retired Constitutional Court Justice Catherine ‘Kate’ O’Regan to discuss the culture of corruption in South Africa and its impact on human rights and the rule of law. Watch the full interview with retired Constitutional Court Justice Catherine ‘Kate’ O'Regan
How are ordinary citizens vulnerable to the impact of Grand corruption within South Africa?
The insidious effect of corruption is that it destroys our trust in public institutions and in public decision-making. Where there is a lot of corruption in our society, people tend to assume that decisions are taken for corrupt reasons not the reasons in the public interest, and in a democracy we do expect public decisions to be taken in the public interest accordant with our publicly stated values in the constitution, not for reasons of private gain. That destruction of trust in the system in electoral representatives, but also in the civil service is very damaging to our body politic because it makes people cynical and believe that actually politics is all about private gain.
How does this relate to Zondo Commission?
When one sees the scale of corrupt practices that have been coming out in the reports of the state capture commission headed by Chief Justice Zondo, we realise that a significant amount of public money has been diverted to private gain and not spent on what the broader public needs, whether it’s basic education or healthcare or social grants or transport or roads. This is a major loss to our society and we cannot easily replace that. Corruption has numerous impacts and all of them are adverse on our society.
How could our politicians better enforce anti-corruption methods within South Africa?
There’s no doubt that the most important thing with dealing with corruption is setting a strong culture, from the top of being resistant to corruption, of understanding that it is not appropriate to divert public finances for private gain, and that needs to be a culture which is accepted in both the public and private sector. It is understandable that people want to see prosecutions, I generally think that prosecutions are part of the response, but the most important way to stop corruption is to build a culture in the public sector that is allergic or hostile to corruption, and in which people feel that it is inappropriate. It’s not an easy thing to do and prosecutions for corruption are not easy things to do either.
A lot of the values that are explicit in our constitution, take for example the values of public administration, they are clearly hostile to corruption and would not accept it. The question is, how we make those values live in our society – in both the public and private sector. That requires leadership and ingenuity.
What is the role of political will in effectively countering corruption?
Political will is absolutely crucial and that requires, firstly, how damaging corruption is, and secondly, addressing it and dealing with it. You cannot build a culture against corruption unless there is a serious commitment to do that. This is applicable to government and all sectors of our society.
Challenge in implementing better anti-corruption methods
We’re quite good at drafting policy and adopting laws in South Africa. The real rub comes with implementation. Were that proposal be adopted, it will all depend on how it is implemented. I think that is the real key, you need serious commitment to the project. If you look around the world, there are many societies grappling with these questions and it probably is something that requires multiple focuses, opposed to just one focus. Some of that is in institutional structures, some of that is political will, some of it is in a broad movement across our society – both the public and private sectors to resist and undermine corrupt practices.
Very few societies, if any, would ever be perfect and many societies would not be in a good state at all, but there are quite a lot of societies which have some aspects of the rule of law which are in a good state and others which are not. Certainly, it can be harmful to the rule of law, the idea, effectively; that people can get away with using public goods for private gain is inimical to the rule of law. Making sure that we hold people to account for misuse of public funds is a very important part of the rule of law.
Accountability Now interview with former Constitutional Court Justice Catherine ‘Kate’ O’Regan