Image: Markus Winkler (Unsplash)
What forms part of the complexity of understanding and conceptualising corruption, is that corruption is both difficult to define and quantify, though perceptions of corruption are quantifiable. This would qualify Engelbert and Bochum’s idea that the predominance of a universal, normative definition of corruption, especially one that takes as its basis the idea that there are common transcultural perceptions of corruption, may lead to the widespread adoption of blueprint anti-corruption mechanisms that are not context-specific and thus, ineffective. Thus, even when the advocacy for corruption is at the centre of domestic and international developmental agendas, stories surrounding institutional reforms and government programs responding to the fight against this social-ill has been disappointing.
Given the argument that what is essential for successful anti-corruption initiatives is the social rejection of corruption, and that it is only when tolerance for corruption in society is understood, that more information can be used as tools to provide effective and sustainable anti-corruption reforms. I argue that public legitimacy and trust, together with good governance are required to launch successful anti-corruption initiatives in fighting a corrupt government. More importantly, as aforementioned, there needs to be a shift from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when dealing with policies of anti-corruption and we need to adopt a more context-specific approach that takes into account social issues.
This means that international law should be taken into consideration with domestic contexts of social norms and culture. Countries like South Africa and Uganda are examples of countries which may have close to perfect anti-corruption legal frameworks but lack law enforcement. This contributes to the culture of impunity and these countries can learn from Hong Kong. In the 2019 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (TICPI) South Africa ranked 70th while Uganda was ranked 137th out of a total of 175 countries. In comparison, Hong Kong was ranked 16th. This opens up space for a discussion around how countries and civil societies deal with the hierarchy of norms and contestations. This discussion has the potential to produce a framework to deal with the politicisation of corruption and ways in which corruption can be trivialised for political reasons. Using the term corruption to castigate those who hold public office in order to sway civil society’s focus from real corruption issues. An example of this trivialisation of corruption would be in Nigeria, a couple of years back, where government’s sectorial policy to offer incentives to industries in order to boost investment in the economy, was labelled as a corrupt act by the media. This attracted attention because it involved the public sector, where resources and commodities rightfully belong to the public and were only administered by public servants on behalf of the public.
Lastly, a takeaway which is crucial for South Africa, is to learn from Hong Kong’s anti-corruption agency. The Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC), is Hong Kong’s constitutional commitment to dealing with corruption, legislative and institutional issues. It is without a doubt that in the quest for establishing good and effective anti-corruption initiatives and governance, civil society has an important role to play as a mobilising force through institutional reforms. Or a more radical rebuilding of new institutional norms and cultures which take into consideration socio-economic and political contexts when implementing anti-corruption policies.
Nkosana Sithole is a Mellon Mays Research Fellow (MMUF). He is a graduate student working towards a Master of Management in Governance, specialising in Public Policy, at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance.