Corruption and Shame in South Africa: Lessons from Current Events

In his recent post, Jordan noted that the OECD Working Group on Bribery recently approved a “scathing” report on South Africa’s noncompliance with the Anti-Bribery Convention. He described group members’ frustration at hitting “a brick wall” as their criticisms fail to effect any change in South Africa. Noting that the Convention’s primary mechanism of enforcing compliance is shame created by critical reports, Jordan asked the very important and provocative question: “What if shame isn’t enough?” A future post will explore an option that might exist for changing, expanding, or enforcing the Convention, but there’s a prior, empirical question: How is the shame mechanism working so far?

South Africa, the nation currently in the Working Group’s crosshairs, represents a fascinating case study in how shame isn’t working, and how it might be able to work better. Recent events in South Africa suggest that not all shame is created equal: A major corruption report has escalated an important corruption scandal — but it’s not the OECD Working Group report. Instead, a local corruption report has dominated the press, while the Working Group’s findings seem to have disappeared entirely.

But first, some background: After twenty years of dominance in which it has won every election in a landslide, the African National Congress — the late Nelson Mandela’s party — is showing its first real signs of weakness in the run-up to elections in May. Concern about corruption seems partly responsible. And President Zuma, in particular, is mired in a corruption scandal arising from allegations that he has used government funds to enrich himself, including by spending $23 million on improvements to his private home. The lurid details of the allegations — including that he installed a swimming pool at taxpayer expense, calling it a fire-prevention system — have captured the public imagination. “At least two-thirds” of South Africans believe that Zuma has inappropriately benefited from his position, according to one analyst. Polls show that voters think the ANC is more corrupt than ever, and that corruption is an important issue in the election. And some have suggested that even if the ANC retains its control of the government, a poor showing could lead the party to oust Zuma as its leader.

At the center of the scandal is a report by the Public Protector — a South African constitutional officer charged with defending democracy — outlining the alleged abuses and calling for Zuma to repay some of the costs. Unlike the Working Group’s report, the Public Protector’s report has made big waves in South African politics. While the local report has been widely cited by the press, my Google News search shows zero discussion of the Working Group report in the South African press and almost as little in the Western press. In fact, The Economist just published an article discussing the effect that the lack of anticorruption prosecution is having on the spread of corruption in South Africa, mentioning the Public Protector’s report and completely ignoring the directly relevant Working Group report.

What lessons can we draw from the strange disappearance of the Working Group’s report at a time and in a country that seems perfectly primed to hear about failures to prosecute corruption? Shouldn’t we expect the press or opposing politicians to seize on a report that helps them build a larger narrative of the Zuma government’s complete abdication of its anticorruption enforcement responsibilities?

The total absence of the report from the press is strange. But the impact of the Public Protector’s report may help explain why the Working Group’s report has had so little impact, and what the Working Group could do to increase its impact in the future. In one sense, the limited impact of the Working Group report could be seen as unsurprising: While “scathing” by the standards of international bureaucrats, the compliance document simply pales in comparison to the colorful facts of specific corruption scandals, such as the one now affecting Zuma. The Working Group report may also be targeted at international actors, seeking to shame South Africa’s leadership and diplomatic corps rather than inflame the general population. The Public Protector’s report, on the other hand, directly touches on salacious facts of a local scandal that already has the attention of the South African people. The importance of the Zuma scandal’s facts should be not underestimated: As Addar pointed out in her brilliant post, corruption “tells” play an important part in public perception of corruption. Bureaucrats driving Benzes, or taxpayer-provided swimming pools masquerading as fire extinguishers, may do more to tip people off to corruption than a report “consider[ing] country-specific (vertical) issues arising from changes in South Africa’s legislative and institutional framework,” as the Working Group report describes itself in part.

Perhaps, then, the Working Group report just isn’t trying shame the right way. It may be pitching to the wrong audience — leadership that has already made the calculation that nonenforcement is in its best interests, rather than the electorate that holds that leadership to account — and it may not be writing the report in a way that will hold the attention of the electorate, rather than the diplomatic corps. Before it takes other steps to try to enforce the Anti-Bribery Convention, as Jordan suggests, perhaps the Working Group could take a more modest step: If at first you don’t succeed, shame, shame again — and better.

7 thoughts on “Corruption and Shame in South Africa: Lessons from Current Events

  1. That was a great read Eden. I’m wondering your thoughts on a tweak to your proposal: if muckraking is an important (essential) part of anticorruption investigation/reporting, I’m wondering if the Working Group is well situated to perform that function? I don’t know much about them, but it looks like it’s made up of reps. from a bunch of states, and they meet 4x a year in Paris… It might make sense for the Group to instead “outsource” its fact-reporting to locally based non-profits in each country, adopting their findings if they meet certain documentation/attribution standards (i.e., can’t just report rumors). It seems like these latter groups would have a big competitive advantage not only in presenting such information (as your post detailed) but also in finding it in the first place (e.g., local connections, maybe less afraid to ruffle feathers/dig through garbage).

    • Michael, that’s a fascinating idea that I haven’t thought about before. I have no idea how that would interact with the Convention’s current rules, but it’s certainly something to consider further. I do wonder if cooperating with local nonprofits would more directly implicate the concerns Sam notes in his comment below. As I said in response to his comment, there is certainly a range of ways to increase political pressure, and this one would definitely be more aggressive than what I had in mind. But you’re right I think it would be more effective, too!


  2. Eden, I think this is your key move in this post: You claim that the Working Group “may be pitching to the wrong audience — leadership that has already made the calculation that nonenforcement is in its best interests, rather than the electorate that holds that leadership to account.” Your argument, I take it, is that to the extent to OECD enforcement measures are designed to pressure the countries’ leaders, rather than their populations, they may be misguided because countries’ leaders are less susceptible to pressure than their citizens. I’m not sure that is true, but assuming it is I still have some concerns. Namely, it feels strange from an international law perspective for the OECD to effectuate the policy goals of member states by attempting to directly influence local populations. I feel uncomfortable with the idea that the goal of these reports should be to shift the balance in domestic politics. At the very least, it would seem to contravene the intent of the states that entered the OECD and could undermine future efforts of states to enter into cooperative agreements. I’m no expert on the OECD, and obviously international organizations do interact directly with the populations of their member states, but the sort of explicit targeting you propose strikes me as a bit too far.

    • Thanks for the comment, Sam. I agree that influencing internal politics seems like a strange function for an international compliance working group to have in mind, but I’m not sure I share your concerns. For one thing, reporting on compliance is still their main function, and one prescribed by the Convention. I don’t think that main focus or the substance of the reports would change too dramatically. And to some degree, states do / should expect to be subject to very critical reports — that’s the whole idea behind the peer review system, so I don’t think writing more effective reports is out of bounds. I also think that many intergovernmental organizations write reports calculated to have political effects — consider the UN Human Rights Council or the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

      But there are also a range of options in implementing the above idea. I agree that publishing National Enquirer-style tabloids in the home country with salacious headlines calculated to incite political unrest would be inappropriate subversion. But rewriting the report to include some blunter language and highlight facts that might get newspapers’ attention doesn’t seem to depart from the Convention’s purpose — it seems to further it. I don’t see this idea as attempting to subvert municipal governments; rather, just writing effective reports that clearly communicate, in a way that all relevant stakeholders can understand, the compliance or noncompliance of a party government.

      • I think the human rights context is slightly different given how norms of sovereignty and voluntariness tend to break down in the context of jus cogens international law violations, but I do get your point. Without knowing more, I wouldn’t be opposed to blunter language and factual highlights, so long as the purpose of the reports doesn’t become oriented around garnering domestic press.

  3. For me an issue of influencing local politics is of concern. Large part of the working group’s criticism is on most parts linked on the public protector’s report on Nkandla and the spending thereof. However, a point of focus for me would be on what power’s do the
    section9 entities have over the executives, particarly the president. Also considering the fact that the public protector’s report does mention the manner in which the service providers inflated costs on the said project. The corruption concern should extend to the private sector as well and how government is expected to pay 5 times more for services should it opt to outsource. This is why the working group might not have any chance on resolving or even impacting on the matter because it’s internal politics, there’s more happening internally than a working group that doesn’t meet regularly can resolve in two or three sittings.

    Also referring to Addar’s report quoted on “…how bureaucrats driving Mercedes Benz ….” continues to perpetuate a one sided view on the matter. Also considering that the building of Nkandla did not start overnight, year report and auditor general’s reports would and should have picked up irregular spending issues from year one, a question in mind would be why would the report and spending be of concern NOW, (Also be mindful of the fact that, there is a drive towards the pols). When does oversight begin, after the ‘act’ ove irregularity has been perpetuated over years or ongoing to ensure that no deviation from the plan takes place.

    Addar’s statement also perpetuates an ideology that Bereaucrats have to be of a certain standard and enjoy certain benefits that are not extravagant whereas there are no laws or regulations in south Africa that sets such standards. There are benefits attached for each position and this has been the norm since 1994 or even before 1994. Maybe the working group might have a chance if the focus would be to standardize acceptable benefits that Bereaucrats across the world or liberal countries are expected to access. This would assist in moving away from emotive stances and taking a side on local politics of a country and claim to understand what is going on. This would also assist the working group on acting on the matter where reference can be based on agreed standards, thus shame mechanism would not be necessary but sanction on expected behavior or processes.

  4. I think the human rights context is slightly different given how norms of sovereignty and voluntariness tend to break down in the context of jus cogens international law violations, but I do get your point. Without knowing more, I wouldn’t be opposed to blunter language and factual highlights, so long as the purpose of the reports doesn’t become oriented around garnering domestic press.and the corruption are day by increased due to failure of positive mechanism and necessary action taken by the government

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