Feature: South Africa scores below ‘flawed democracies’ in corruption index

South Africa ranked 72 out of the 180 countries, scoring 41 along with Burkina Faso, Vietnam and Kosovo, while China and Cuba scored slightly better at 42, and the Seychelles got the highest score, 71, in the sub-Saharan Africa region.

South Africa’s level of corruption and ability to fight it has slipped below the average of “flawed democracies” over the past 10 years, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index report for 2023.

The country’s slight drop in ratings occurred in the context of a global decline in justice and the rule of law across regions from Europe and the Americas to sub-Saharan Africa and Asia since 2016, according to the report, which was released on Tuesday.

“The rise of authoritarianism in some countries contributes to this trend, and even in democratic contexts, the mechanisms that keep governments in check have weakened. Governments across the political spectrum have undermined justice systems, restricted civic freedoms and relied on non-democratic strategies to address recent challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said.

The index  ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public-sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople. It relies on 13 independent data sources and uses a scale of zero to 100, where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.  

Countries with a strong rule of law and well-functioning democratic institutions often sit at the top of the index. Democratic countries tend to greatly outperform authoritarian regimes when controlling corruption — full democracies have an index average of 73, flawed democracies have one of 48 and non-democratic regimes just 32.

South Africa ranked 72 out of the 180 countries, scoring 41 along with Burkina Faso, Vietnam and Kosovo, while China and Cuba scored slightly better at 42, and the Seychelles got the highest score, 71, in the sub-Saharan Africa region.

Denmark led the global ranking — with a score of 90 — for the sixth year in a row, followed closely by Finland and New Zealand with scores of 87 and 85, respectively. Norway (84), Singapore (83), Sweden (82), Switzerland (82), the Netherlands (79), Germany (78) and Luxembourg (78) completed the top 10 this year.

Countries experiencing conflict or with highly restricted freedoms and weak democratic institutions recorded the worst scores, with Somalia (11), Venezuela (13), Syria (13) and South Sudan (13) coming in at the bottom of the index for the year. Yemen (16), Nicaragua (17), North Korea (17), Haiti (17), Equatorial Guinea (17), Turkmenistan (18) and Libya (18) are the next lowest performers.

South Africa’s score dropped from 43 points and a 72th place ranking in 2022, and scored 44 points and 70th position in 2021. In 2013, the country scored 42 and was placed 72nd out of the 180 countries measured.

The country was not alone in its lack of improvement; despite the progress made in criminalising corruption and establishing specialised anti-corruption institutions around the world only 28 of the 180 countries improved their corruption levels, while 34 countries significantly worsened.

Although remaining the top-scoring region, Western Europe and the European Union  experienced a drop in its average score to 65 out of 100, reflecting weakened checks and balances and eroding political integrity. 

Eastern Europe and Central Asia grapples with dysfunctional rule of law, rising authoritarianism and systemic corruption, which is reflected in an average score of 35. In sub-Saharan Africa, despite improvement in some countries, most maintained a low score with a regional average of 33, the world’s lowest.

Scores in the Middle East and North Africa region showed little improvement with an average of 38, reflecting ongoing struggles with political corruption and conflict. Limited judicial independence and weak rule of law enables widespread impunity in the Americas, which scored an average of 43.

“This limited progress is hardly surprising considering the chronic weaknesses of justice systems meant to detect, investigate, prosecute and adjudicate corruption cases. Ongoing under resourcing of the judiciary, police and other justice institutions, combined with insufficient levels of independence from other branches of government mean that corruption often goes unpunished,” the report said.

Impunity encourages further wrongdoing at all levels, ranging from bribery and embezzlement to the organised, complex schemes of grand corruption, which is the abuse of high-level power that causes serious and widespread suffering in societies.

The report noted that grand corruption perpetrators too often benefit from impunity, because domestic justice systems are “unable or unwilling” to pursue them, whether because of state capture, interference or limited powers, resources and capacity.

Those abusing power escape accountability and the widespread harm to victims goes unremedied.

Corruption will continue to thrive until justice systems can punish wrongdoing and keep governments in check, Transparency International chairperson François Valérian said.

“When justice is bought or politically interfered with, it is the people that suffer. Leaders should fully invest in and guarantee the independence of institutions that uphold the law and tackle corruption. It is time to end impunity for corruption” Valérian said.

According to the report, research and work with partners in more than 100 countries suggests that governments seeking to tackle corruption, promote justice and strengthen the rule of law should implement six recommendations.

These include strengthening the independence of the justice system by promoting merit-based rather than political appointments, ensuring that the system has qualified personnel and is properly resourced; making justice more transparent by making relevant data on judgments, out-of court settlements and enforcement as well as legal procedure and administrative rules openly available to public scrutiny; and introducing integrity and monitoring mechanisms to prevent officials’ abuse of power.

It also recommended promoting cooperation in the justice system; improving access to justice, and expanding avenues for accountability in grand corruption cases by allowing justice institutions in foreign jurisdictions with stronger rule of law to play a role in countering impunity by handling the legal proceedings in cases where countries’ justice systems are “unwilling or unable” to enforce against offenders.

Just 10% of the world’s population lives in the 25 top ranking countries, indicating that corruption affects the lives and human rights of most people in the world, according to the report.

Transparency International chief executive Daniel Eriksson said corruption worsens social injustice and disproportionately affects the most vulnerable.

“In many countries, obstacles to justice for victims of corruption persist. It is time to break the barriers and ensure people can access justice effectively. Everyone deserves fair and inclusive legal systems where victims’ voices are heard at every stage. Anything else is an affront to justice,” Eriksson said.   — Mail & Guardian.

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