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SA’s (infuriating) corruption deficit

My friend Boris was distraught. He was clutching R2000’s worth of crumpled banknotes and muttering to himself.

The money, it turns out, was a rejected bribe.

He had never heard of anything like it: a driving test inspector — a police official! — refusing to sell a licence for cash!

“R2000 is a month’s wages!” Boris kept yelling with well-lubricated Russian indignation. “What kind of country is this!?”

The answer: an unusually clean one.

A fact obscured by the media’s justified handwringing over why Home Affairs took 15 years to get a clean audit is just how remarkable even such a modest achievement is for a middle-income country.

It’s often been said that South Africa doesn’t deserve to be part of Brics — the grouping of the world’s five strongest developing powers — because of its undiversified economy, anaemic growth and low foreign direct investment.

But there is another, much better way in which the country differs from its counterparts: according to Transparency International, South Africa is massively less corrupt than Brazil, Russia, India or China.

Scoring a very respectable 54th place out of 176 on the most recent index, South Africa came second only to Botswana on the African mainland, and a whopping 100 places above Russia.

Two things make this achievement especially notable. First, that 32 of the 53 places ahead of it were predictably crammed with the world’s richest countries: Western Europe, US and Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. At least 10 further places went to rich, tiny principalities and autocratic city states barely the size of Joburg — the likes of Bhutan, Brunei, Bahrain and Macau.

And second, that South Africa was one of only three other natural resource-endowed democracies in the top 55 (the others were Norway and Botswana). This is significant because, according to the resource curse, countries heavily dependent on commodity exports like oil and minerals have a very high chance of being either autocratic (Saudi Arabia), highly corrupt (Nigeria), or both (Russia). In that context, South Africa may not be up there with Germany, but it’s punching way above its weight.

All this might come as a shock to the millions of South Africans whose other national sport is moaning about how corrupt and incompetent their government is. That’s not entirely unwarranted. From arms scandals to shady tenders, pension scams to qualified audits, opening a newspaper can feel like stepping on a (dodgily procured) landmine of gloom. What’s more, such stories often gain traction by feeding into racist conceptions that under black management, the country has gone downhill.

Yet the clearest reason why South Africa is relatively clean but feels so corrupt to many of its own citizens is the country’s other stand-out asset: its press — one of the world’s freest and most intrepid.

Even in the wake of the mooted (and now doomed) media law, Reporters Without Borders not only ranked South Africa above all the Bric countries on its annual index of media freedom, but even ahead of Spain, France and Italy. Quick to report on abuses of power, South Africa’s independent and combative watch-dog journalists are at least partly responsible for keeping corruption at bay.

None of this is to suggest that the country should rest on its laurels. Indeed, over the last few years, South Africa has slipped in a few of these indices. Vast sums of government funds continue to be stolen by officials and the politically connected, or spent taking them on fact-finding missions to Disneyworld, and for every thwarted Boris, there must be a fair number of minibus taxi drivers who manage to buy their licences without a glitch.

Yet it is a far cry from the reality in most of the “developing world” — including the much lauded giants Brazil and China — where giving bribes is a daily tax, no more unusual than tipping a car guard.

In my own country, it’s virtually impossible to enter university (payments of up to R160 000 to admissions officers are common practice), open a business, deal with any police officer or government official, or sometimes even make it through airport customs, without greasing a few palms along the way.

In fact, living in South Africa can get quite frustrating for those of us used to the magical power of a well-placed $100 bill.

Recently told by a Home Affairs clerk that a change to my visa status would take up to six weeks to process, I looked meaningfully at my wallet and asked if there is anything that I could do. He blankly recommended coming back in a month and a half.

So the next time South Africans read a headline like “Home Affairs gets first clean audit in 15 years”, they should certainly feel irked that it’s taken this long to get there.

But not without feeling proud about just how rare even a relatively clean government — not to mention a press free enough to snark about it — is in the world, and particularly among South Africa’s peers.


  • Journalist Vadim Nikitin claims to be working on a book about nostalgia. He blames his poor judgement and unhealthy obsession with the past on having been born perilously close to the Soviet Union's largest nuclear submarine base.


  1. Great News Great News 3 October 2011

    “Recently told by a Home Affairs clerk that a change to my visa status would take up to six weeks to process, I looked meaningfully at my wallet and asked if there is anything that I could do. He blankly recommended coming back in a month and a half.” That is the best damn news I have heard this year. The man who said that to you is a HERO. Especially as Home Affairs also just got a clean audit. Pat yourself on the back SA – yes – there is good news, and lots of public servants are clean and honest. They are our heroes.

  2. MLH MLH 3 October 2011

    Tee! hee! Transparency International must have used bad researchers.

  3. Al Al 3 October 2011

    Keep writing about these SA-former Soviet Union comparisons. I find them and some of the feedback they attract, most riveting.

  4. Mr Yellow Mr Yellow 4 October 2011

    Thank you for some good news for a change…

  5. Zwelakhe Zwelakhe 4 October 2011

    How irronic that the are no comments on this article, but had it been otherwise, like how corrupt SA is I can bet my last rand we would have had 500 comments out of the 750 that had read the artcle.

  6. fraud fraud 4 October 2011

    Interesting facts indeed. But these facts show that under black management, the government has not done too badly, contrary to what our media always tells us, or wishes. So expect a large number of commentators from the usual section of our community to hurl insults at you.

  7. X Cepting X Cepting 4 October 2011

    You give a healthy fresh perspective to a society overcome by self(importance).

    Why did you move here? I am really interested to know since I’m planning a move in the other direction. Honest corruption is starting to sound ideal after too much dishonest honesty.

  8. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 4 October 2011

    Vado, I’ve been enjoying your insightful and refreshing commentary, but…

    You do realize that this column will just play into the sense among some South Africans that all the crime and corruption are caused by foreigners — Nigerians, Somalis, Czechs, Russians.

    Not that they’d be wrong about the Slavs. You people sicken me.

  9. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 4 October 2011

    Thank you! Too often, supposed liberal South Africans bemoan South African conditions from their privileged socio-economic place in society. But to most of the country, these convenient opinions of “the way things are supposed to be”, and formed in a vacuum of the mind, are nothing more than concealed prejudice towards the non-western.

  10. Robin Bownes Robin Bownes 4 October 2011

    Nice to get a different perspective on things.

  11. peter nel peter nel 4 October 2011

    Since when is 54th place out of 176 respectable. It is not acceptable to adopt the view that there are criminals worse than us so we are actually ok. So then robbers who hold up stores and loot and maim innocent civilians in the process are not so bad when compared to those who actually wilfully murder for gain. Nonsense prevails, a criminal is a criminal and the crime remains a crime. The fact that there are countries where corruption is more prevalent than here is nothing to be satisfied about at all. We need to judge ourselves by our own standards and not by the standards of others, especially when they can hardly be called role models. 54th is like geting 35% at school, hardly something to be proud of.

  12. Jean Wright Jean Wright 4 October 2011

    Oh you Russians! Want to know if Boris finally passed his test, and whether he is being charged with attempted bribery….

    Sadly, the silent ‘rank & file’ population of countries very often bear little resemblance to the top honchos, and one is left wondering why they are continually voting them in…. hopefully, with enough publicity and public outrage, the times are slowly a-changing.

  13. Ms Ann Thrope Ms Ann Thrope 4 October 2011

    @ Mr Nikitin

    Your articles are well-written, topical and most of all POSITIVE outlooks on South Africa without being head-in-the-ground rose-tinted. South Africans need to stop bitching and complaining and realised how many things work!

  14. DonQuixote DonQuixote 4 October 2011


    “But these facts show that under black management, the government has not done too badly, contrary to what our media always tells us, or wishes.”

    As far as I have read, the South African media do not include racial tropes in their reports.

  15. ian shaw ian shaw 4 October 2011

    To me the important aspect of corruption is as to how many who caught are meaningfully sentenced. Our criminal justice system seems to set them free if politically connected, or give them suspended sentences. Is this the same in other countries mentioned?

  16. J du Preez J du Preez 4 October 2011

    In South Africa, during the two financial years 2008/09 and 2009/10, municipal officials and local government councillors stole R14.8 billion from the state. Lately, we learn that officials of the public “works” department stole R2.8 billion from the state.

    Looks like they are going to get away with it, probably because the kickbacks they pay to the party that “deploy” them, ensure protection from prosecution.

    Corruption is when businessmen offer officals large bribes for favours. In South Africa, the businessmen, officials and politicians are one and the same people.

    This means that a particularly ugly form of bandit capitalism (and nor corruption) is prevalent within the gang that wields political power in South Africa.

  17. Lennon Lennon 4 October 2011

    @goolam.dawood: How is “I expect the government to use my tax money to the benefit of the country and not their own pockets” in any way a form of “concealed prejudice”?

    How is wanting competent government departments and officials; efficient police, miltary and emergency services a form of “concealed prejudice”?

    Where is the “concealed prejudice” in wanting an independent judiciary; freedom of thought, speech and the press?

    Is it only through “concealed prejudice” that the citizens of this country can expect their elected goverment to be held accountable for their failures?

    Methinks the only prejudice emanating here is from your own keyboard and it’s barely concealed.

  18. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 4 October 2011

    Unfortunately pre-1994 South Africa was much less corrupt – the Afrikaner having a great fear of God and hellfire and damnation, and belief in the 10 commandments – which is why they gave refuge and protection to the Jews. They believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible – which says that the Jews were the chosen people of God.

    I doubt a Russian from a communist country, where the Bible was banned, could understand such a belief.

  19. Joe soap Joe soap 4 October 2011

    MLH # Tee! hee! Transparency International must have used bad researchers.
    I think so too. I will not dispute Soth Africa’s ranking but to say press freer than in Spain? or the bbc for that matter? I doubt it. South Africa is indeed very free and cheeky but they still watch where they tread.

  20. X Cepting X Cepting 5 October 2011

    @Lennon – You put the finger (as always ;) ) right on the sore spot. The more I engage with so-called previously disadvantaged that are still disadvantaged, the more I realise that what they really loathe about the previous “regime” is that despite all its wrongs, it worked. There was clean water, litter was dealt with, the police (although sometimes brutal) had the respect of criminals and crime was contained, public transport was on time and clean, etc. etc. It tastes bad to have freedom and to realise that this is not enough, that, as more successful previously disadvantaged discovered, after freedom, the hard work begins of development of self, as much as development of community, that no-one is going to tell a free person what to do and how to do it, how to solve problems, that that free person must now figure these things out for themself. Those that fail to catch on seem to develop the attitude of neglected and abused children the world over: if I cannot be good, I will be good at being bad and tries to destroy any development they see around them. Sad, really sad. Europe and western civilisation did not come about as an instant product but through trial and many, many errors and, yes, damn hard work.

  21. SouthEaster SouthEaster 5 October 2011

    It’s nice to know that Home Affairs officials aren’t that corrupt. But it’s the inefficiency and grinding slowness that harms South Africa.

    Six weeks to amend a visa? 15 years ago it was same-day service.

  22. Ms Ann Thrope Ms Ann Thrope 5 October 2011

    @ X cepting You cannot be serious. Clean water, trash collection, public transport and policing was only good pre-94 if you were priviledged enough to be light skinned. The darker skinned people were shoved in their own little corners of the world away from your naive eye. Why is that people don’t understand that catering to 8% of the population pre-94 was a lot easier than dealing with all 60 million of us now! Save your condescedning BS please.

    @ Lyndall: The Afrikaner government was not any less corrupt, the press was just allowed less access to government dealings. The transparency we have now allows all the underhanded sh*t to be displayed all over the front pages. (Albeit with no real accountability).

  23. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 5 October 2011

    Ann Thrope,

    The English speaking press in SA was very liberal – they leaked anything which could not be published in SA to the international press, usually in the USA and Britain.

    My husband and I met in the Press Club over a game of bridge, and knew many of the reporters and editors of those days.

    The ANC attempts to thwart knowledge are similarly being circumvented by the internet today and not just the ANC, but many other political dirty secrets.

  24. Mdizman Mdizman 5 October 2011

    Give credit where it`s due. Indeed it is encouraging to learn that S A is up there with those countries who manage corruption admirably.A welcome respite from the daily condemnation from those sceptics who see this country through blinkers.We need more of such writers who are totally neutral.

  25. X Cepting X Cepting 5 October 2011

    @Ms Ann Thrope – We all know the Afrikaner Nationalists did not care a damn what happened to people other than themself, so, of course, I obviously meant that eveything worked where these people lived, not for the other 95%.

    As for condescending BS? I believe that the taxpayers’ base, given the right leadership, would have increased similarly and so would the capacity to produce and incidently, unlike you, I do firmly believe the other 95% definitely contain people with the ability and skill to have used said increased tax funds more wisely to increase the infrastructure in the country since ’94, given a chance. Unfortunately, it seems, those people were not chosen, with a few exceptions, so, who is the condescending one now? You who make excuses for mediocre results due to wrong decisions taken by a corrupt leadership more interested in lining their own pockets or me who believe the same people have the ability to do better?

    The last government also by no means, flung their ill-gotten gains in the face of the taxpayers like the current government is. I don’t remember any Sushi parties or trips to rescue girlfriends in jail, costing millions. Perhaps they hid it more carefully but they definitely did not buy their arms from overseas, instead developing and building them locally, at least giving some locals jobs.

  26. X Cepting X Cepting 5 October 2011

    Also, Ms Thrope, I grew up on a farm, not far from a township where I had a close view of how the “other side” lived in those days, on a daily basis.

  27. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 5 October 2011

    @ Lennon – the fact is that South Africa is actually functioning well at the systemic level. The fact is that its improving under black leadership. The fact is that most numbers related to corruption are grotesquely overstated, hardly ever checked and usually over-emphasized relative to the significant problems of socio-economic disparity. Now someone like you might cry foul at the need for a “free press”, and an “independent judiciary”. But someone like you nevers questions bias in the press or discrimination in the judiciary. So where does that leave the masses of the country? Preserving your right to lie to yourself and you ilk.

  28. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 5 October 2011

    Lol – pre1984 apartheid South Africa was much less corrupt – statements like this say it all about what drives “debate” in this country.

    The English speaking press was not “liberal”. It was less government controlled. I love how lines are blurred. Did editorials ever call for unbanning the ANC? Did they ever actively promote a liberal policy agenda .. like equitable hiring? Liberal is a principle … controversial is one too.

    I love when formerly and presently privilieged think back to the glory days and show up how little they actually understood apartheid, and the liberal values that are essential to this countries progress.

  29. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 5 October 2011


    Read the biographies of Van Zyl Slabbert and Allister Sparks.

    The only major corruption scandal was the Citizen newspaper found to be funded illegally – which resulted in a change of president -corruption was seen so seriously, as theft from the people, by the Afrikaner.

    The other scandals usually all related to sanctions busting.

  30. X Cepting X Cepting 5 October 2011

    @goolam.dawood – are you actually old enough to have been around in those days. Your rethoric, which contain much accusation also contain little proof and smacks of someone who has the truth about what happened then second hand, either that, or you are unable to critically look at the reality. I loathed the previous governmemt but cannot deny the reality of failing infrastructure now or reduced production capability. Do you know that unemployment is at 42%? Why don’t you tell those jobless people how it is better and see what they say? Why don’t you tell those whose development money is being stolen and wasted on nauseating excess how it is better. I really have no patience with ANC apologists in spite of daily, unreported signs of their corruption.

  31. Lennon Lennon 6 October 2011

    @goolam.dawood: Mac Maharaj? Is that you?

    The only fact here is that you have deliberately ignored my questions and gone on a rant, much like any political spin doctor would when facing the heat. You have yet to demonstrate any prejudice from my part – concealed or otherwise.

    “South Africa is actually functioning well at the systemic level. The fact is that its improving under black leadership.” — What does the colour of a person’s skin have to do with this? Once again I am left wondering where the real prejudice is emanating from. It’s funny: Why is it that so many people are migrating from the ANC-run Eastern Cape to the DA-run Western Cape?

    Why have our public hospitals become something of a joke in recent years? Tygerberg hospital has the same stale uring smell as platform 11 at Bellville Train Station. Conradie Clinic is plagued by systematic theft of patients’ belongings.

    Freight rail is all-but non-existent (hence the increase in trucking companies and, subsenquently, higher transport costs) and passenger rail is not as reliable as it should be.

    Our crime rate is insanely high and the brutality is almost on par with the Mau Mau killings in Kenya during the 1950’s.

    Government officials are quick to pinch money and abuse State resources for their own ends (subsidised whiskey – Glenfiddich, I might add – in the MP’s canteen in Parliament is a tiny example).

    Where is the improvement you spoke of?

    Where is the prejudice in wanting a safe…

  32. Lennon Lennon 6 October 2011

    @goolam.dawood: “But someone like you nevers questions bias in the press or discrimination in the judiciary.” Some like you assumes much, but I must wonder if you have ever learnt the lessons of assumption.

    I check multiple news sources as often as possible – even when it’s a sci-tech article.

    I have even switched from watching international news channels like CNN and Sky News to Al Jazeera since they operate without NATO peering over their shoulders. I have also gone so far as to read non-mainstream sources such as Info Wars as there is no censorship in their reporting.

    “So where does that leave the masses of the country?” — It leaves them eating the sh*t sandwiches which the current ANC leadership are content to feed them while they plunder the resources of this nation for themselves or sell them off to foreign firms for a backhander in true neo-colonialist style.

    Methinks Moeletsi Mbeki was right after all.

  33. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 11 October 2011

    The only ones turning a blind eye to reality, are the ones I see posting here. Who were the beneficiaries of the apartheids government policies. How transparent were the Apartheid regimes policies?? lol … corruption was not just endemic, nationalisation was rife, preferential treatment was the order of the day, packets of money constantly changed hands. You guys are asking the question of every establishment except that one that favours your economic privilege, neo-liberal establishment thats made up of mostly DA funders and supporters.

    Moeletsi Mbeki has alot to say about quite alot. Its not unusual that people ignore South Africas good governance standing relative to its capacity (because it was built by an ANC led government), ignore Mbekis critique of big money, ignore apartheid profiteers and the ravages of privatisation … then turn around with empty refrains of SA’s former amazing liberal press, and current SA governments disrespect for liberty and justice.

    I have nothing to answer for, because I’m not using strawman arguments to cover complicity and lies. I’m not ignoring the enormous amounts of work that the to make that compromise.

    I bet none of you can even admit that the Apartheid regime was itself a fascist regime that committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. And those same criminals (honest as you assert they were), have continued their full lives under this governments forgiving and accommodating policy.

  34. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 11 October 2011

    @ Lennon – Plunder is such a relative word for someone who claims to even review scientific evidence. Right here is a scientific assessment of the countries transparent government and its moves to rectify inefficiencies in the government. i wonder if you can know what percentage of government money is factually known to be misspent.

    Guys like you will never give an inch, because to admit an ANC success, is to admit that your principles are just empty refrains at preserving an economic and social status quo (mostly enforced in the private sector). You probably can’t even explain why racial prejudice is so prominent in the private sector. Who were the real big winners in the privatisation of freight? What was the objective of government controlled freight industry in the first place? Why has the private sectore grown but the black middle class shrunk?

    When you actually understand the architecture of the aparthied state, rather than this glossed-over colonialist attitude of a tiny policy mistake… then you can assume to ask questions rather than think first. Because while you’re decrying your minority status and all things foul, majority of South Africans (educated ones as well), still want to know how whites should apologise for apartheid. There’s your Sh** sandwich right there.

  35. Lennon Lennon 12 October 2011

    What is it with you and race? What is this obsession with think that I or any other poster longs for the “glory days” of apartheid? What priviledge? Do you think that earning a modest salary (under 10k/month) and having to support both parents and younger brother trying to finish up his studies implies that I have wealth and priviledge? HAHAHAHA!!! Pull your head out of the sand Mac.

    Why do you ignore the blinding reality that conditions in this country have deteriorated?

    For all the gains which have been made since De Klerk repealed the apartheid laws; the Constitution was formulated; democratic elections were held and people were free to pursue their dreams without any BS laws preventing them from doing so things are looking grim. Why is is that many from the “previously disadvantaged” groups complain that they preferred the previous bunch of thugs as work was available? Might that have something to do with the fact that our manufacturing sector is rapidly collapsing?

    The previous government was good at hiding their theft – something that the current lot wish to do with the PoIB. Do you expect me to condone any of this? Do you think I don’t want the Public Protector to carry on investigating the whereabouts of Nat money?

    A lot of well-functioning systems were privatised, yes. Said systems are now falling apart due to mismanagement. Whether this would have been prevented by keeping them under government control is anyone’s guess now but at least the…

  36. Citizen Mntu Citizen Mntu 16 October 2011

    @ goolam.dawood – yes, indeed the Afrikaner Nationalists were a kind of National Socialist government. Recall, in fact, how their armed wing, the “Ossewabrandwag” openly supported Hitler and his Third Reich during WW2? And how BJ Vorster was gaoled for his subversive activities at Stelenbosch University? And how the spy Robie Leibrandt was communicating with German submarines?

    Now, do you also recall the cosy conspiracy made between the ANC and those very same Nats in the years prior to 1994? Their mutual planning for the notorious and ruinous “Arms Deal”? And their combined plot to assassinate Chris Hani because he was a threat to their scheme?

    Goolam, these two parties were / are practically identical in their conservative National Socialism.

    The love affair continues. Lots of ex-Nats are now ANC members and cronies. Both of these coelecanths are devoted to authoritarianism, to master-worship, to fixed ideas such as “scientific racism”. Both of are allergic to Free Intelligence, Individual Thought and Expression, Debate, Discussion, Criticism, and of course Opposition.

    The African National Socialists = The Afrikaner National Socialists

    Neither radical nor liberal. Just plain conservative, authoritarian, phobia-ridden, racist, self-regarding, rudderless and un-patriotic gangsters with a serious self-esteem problem. Heading fast towards the dustbin of History…

  37. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 18 October 2011

    @Lennon – What is it with me and race… How about, what is it with this country and race? Everytime someone brings up the failure of racial redress by popular liberal slogans and ideas .. the ciriticism inevitably is … playing the race card.

    >>> Why is is that many from the “previously disadvantaged” groups complain that they preferred the previous bunch of thugs as work was available?

    Good point – your “many” is in fact very few. Less even than the Afrikaaners who have occupied Oranje, I bet. But that’s besides the point isn’t it. The point is that criticism of corruption in government is hinged on one principal perspective .. that the current ANC led government has improved nothing, and that corruption is the ANC’s fault. A lie, historical revisionism and a clear misunderstanding of what exactly government is and how it works.

    And all I see is the same people chucking these criticisms quite silent (or ignorant) about the major issues in the private sector, international neo-liberalism, racialised poverty and our other major problems.

    @Citizen Mntu – conspiracy theories aside, my point, and the reason it irks so many people into external diatribes … is that criticism of the government is a convenient way to play the victim and preserve socio-economic privileges. The ruling coalition is made up of alot of different groupings and the ANC itself is ideologically diverse. Your focus on definition and conspiracy indicates an unwillingness to focus on…

  38. Citizen Mntu Citizen Mntu 19 October 2011

    @ goolam.dawood – Thanks for your reply :) Well, I had to begin somewere, as your posts also have historical allusions in them, and you in fact compared the Nats and the ANC in terms of corrupt governance.

    Moreover, I agree that cavelling over small points of policy does not take us very far. South Africa is still a Big Issue country, with the issue of the ANC and its neo-racism and fake radicalism just as dire as was the issue of the Nats, apartheid, and fake liberalism.

    In our Big Issue country we just have to keep our eyes on The Wood, compellingly interesting as The Trees may be… Only this will help us to rouse The Nation a second time, to overthrow a second rotten regime…

  39. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 27 October 2011

    If the ANC has adopted some neo-racist policy, then the facts indicate that the ANC is a white supremacist organisation lol

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