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.