A South African “Abuse of Public Power” Offense? Some Suggestions for Drafting a Proposed Statutory Crime

South Africa has laws which criminalize various forms of corruption (bribery, embezzlement, and the like), yet officeholders have regularly exploited their positions of power for illicit gains (see here and here). Part of the reason for this is that it often can be very difficult to prove the elements of a specific corruption offense, even when it seems clear that the officeholder abused his or her authority. To address this problem, a prominent judicial commission in South Africa (known as the Zondo Commission) recently recommended that South Africa adopt a statutory criminal offense for the “abuse of public power.” The proposed offense would cover “any person who exercises or purports to exercise any public power vested in such person…otherwise than in good faith and for the purpose for which such power was conferred,” and if the prosecution can prove such abuse of public power, then the defendant can be subject to up to 20 years imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of approximately US$12 million.

If the offense sounds very broad, that’s because it is. The Zondo Commission’s proposal contemplates a low threshold for what would constitute an abuse of public power, with no restriction to officials of senior rank. To illustrate, the Zondo Commission offered a wide range of potential examples of “abuse of public power,” including not only conduct such as the president granting an unauthorized person access to the “national wealth,” but also conduct like a junior official who suspends a colleague due to “envy or revenge.” Continue reading

Full Disclosure of Donations to Intra-Party Political Campaigns: An Anticorruption Imperative in South Africa

In South Africa, the Political Party Funding Act (the PPFA) regulates campaign donations and expenditures to political parties. By imposing various limits and transparency requirements, the PPFA—which is overseen by South Africa’s Electoral Commission—is supposed to prevent corruption and other forms of undue influence that campaign donors may seek to exert over officeholders. But South Africa’s political campaign financing laws contain a significant loophole, one that arises due to an unusual feature of how appointments to the executive branch of government work in South Africa. In contrast to many other jurisdictions, in South Africa members of the incoming governing coalition who seek appointment in the executive branch (including the president) engage in hotly contested intra-party political campaigns, and these campaigns are also funded through donations. Until recently, not only were donations to these intra-party campaigns not regulated by the PPFA, but they did not have to be disclosed under the Executive Ethics Code (Ethics Code). This potentially opened the door for corruption and influence peddling, with millions of dollars funneled to campaigns of South African politicians who sought positions in the executive branch.

For instance, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2017 intra-party political campaign (the “CR17 campaign”) to become president of the African National Congress (ANC) and, eventually, South Africa, received an estimated US$20 million in donations. It was subsequently uncovered that US$37,000 had been donated by a corrupt entity formerly known as Bosasa. Bosasa was notorious for making exorbitant donations to the ANC as a quid pro quo to secure significant contracts from the ANC-led government (see here and here). While it remains to be proven whether the allegations that Bosasa’s donation to the CR17 campaign was nefarious, or whether Ramaphosa personally benefited from donations made to his campaign, the non-disclosure of these and similar donations raises serious risks.

Recently, however, the Constitutional Court held that the Ethics Code in its current form is unconstitutional insofar as it fails to require disclosure of all donations made to intra-party political campaigns. The Court reasoned such non-disclosure deprived South African citizens of their constitutional right to information that is essential to making informed political choices when exercising their constitutional right to vote; the Court also concluded that this lack of transparency increased the risk of corruption. The Court mandated the president cure the defect arising by amending the Ethics Code by September 2023. The Court did not, however, prescribe the precise form the amendment should take because doing so would be inconsistent with the role of the judiciary under South Africa’s separation-of-powers doctrine.

When amending the Ethics Code to comply with the Court’s ruling, the guiding principle should be, to the extent feasible, to align disclosure obligations for donations to intra-party campaigns with the obligations currently imposed by the PPFA on inter-party political campaigns. Applying that principal suggests that the Ethics Code should be amended to impose the following two core requirements: Continue reading