In the opening paragraph of the foreword to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) (to which South Africa is a State Party), then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, emphasised that corruption “undermines democracy and the Rule of Law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life and allows organised crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish”. Whether measured in Rands and Cents, or the effect on human lives, corruption comes at a cost far greater than the bribes paid and received. Corrupt public officials – apart from illicitly acquiring personal wealth at the expense of their fellow countrymen and women – are also directly and indirectly responsible for the many woes referred to by Kofi Annan. As such, it is important that the government – in particular members of Cabinet and senior public officials – walk the walk instead of only talking the talk when it comes to combating corruption. It is crucial for the government to adhere to all of the provisions of the UNCAC – including to ensure that South Africa has a sufficiently independent anti-corruption agency able to effectively investigate even the most senior politicians and officials. However, public officials (any person holding a legislative, executive, administrative or judicial office) do not corrupt themselves, regardless of whether they solicit a bribe or are being offered a bribe.

Corruption functions on the basis of supply and demand: someone has the power to do something, change or ensure an outcome or look the other way, and someone else is willing to pay for access to such power. Hence, as long as individuals are willing (and often offering) to pay bribes, there will be public officials willing and able to accept the undue advantage in return for acting or refraining from acting in the exercise of his or her official duties. It may be as simple as avoiding a parking ticket, or expediting delivery of a permit or passport. It may also be as complex as securing lucrative public tenders worth millions of Rand, or manipulating criminal justice processes and justice itself. No matter how it materialises, the promise, offering or giving of any direct or indirect undue advantage to a public official or another person such as a family member or partner in return for a “favour” from such official is not only illegal, but it is also perpetuating the culture of corruption as it encourages corrupt officials to continue with their illicit practices.

Remarkably, a recent study by the Ethics Institute of South Africa showed that at least 75% of South Africans who were asked for a bribe ended up paying a bribe and at least 26% of respondents knew of someone who had been asked for a bribe in the past year. It seems that we rather conveniently tend to ignore the fact that both “greasing the palm” of a single official in return for a “small favour”, as well as engaging in an elaborate scheme worth millions aimed at buying the favour of those in power, equally contributes to corrupting society and entrenching corrupt practices as the norm.

We have to do better. Demand from the government to do everything in its power to prevent, suppress and prosecute corruption without fear or favour. However, also demand that every person in South Africa stops paying, offering or entertaining requests for bribes. Report those who pay bribes (and especially those who boast about it) to authorities as enthusiastically as those who receive or solicit bribes. Pursue a corruption-free society by setting the example.

By Adv Johan Kruger, Director: Centre for Constitutional Rights