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Key findings
  • South Africa ranks first among 36 countries surveyed in 2014/2015 in perceptions of growing corruption, with eight in 10 citizens (83%) saying corruption has increased “somewhat” or “a lot” over the previous year.
  • More than two-thirds (68%) of South Africans say officials who commit crimes “always” or “often” go unpunished. This is above the continental average (59%) and represents an increase of 11 percentage points from 2008 (57%).
  • Among institutions intended to hold officials accountable, the Public Protector enjoys the greatest public trust (58%), followed by the courts (56%) and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) (55%). Only 41% of citizens trust Parliament “somewhat” or “a lot.”
  • An increasing proportion of citizens want Parliament to hold the president accountable (63% in 2015 vs. 47% in 2008) and say the president must obey the courts and laws of the country (77% in 2015 vs. 62% in 2008). But more than half say he regularly ignores Parliament (59%) and the judiciary (56%).
  • Strong majorities of South Africans support media investigation and reporting of government mistakes and corruption (70%) and believe the media is effective in this role (82%). However, just half (51%) say citizens’ ability to hold government accountable is more important than government efficiency, and only a minority say elections are effective at allowing citizens to remove under-performing officials from office.

A report by South Africa’s Public Protector has triggered the latest scandal involving President Jacob Zuma and other state officials, who are accused of improper and unethical conduct in the awarding of state contracts. The report was released as the result of a High Court ruling (Times Live, 2016) and follows court cases related to the 1999 Arms Deal (Corruption Watch, 2014) and the misuse of state funds in the security upgrades of Zuma’s personal home in Nkandla (Mail & Guardian, 2016). The latest investigation focuses on allegations of Gupta business family involvement in the removal and appointment of ministers and directors of state companies, resulting in the improper awarding of state contracts and benefits to their businesses totaling billions of rand (Madonsela, 2016). The Public Protector has ordered the president to appoint a commission of inquiry, which will have 180 days to investigate and report its findings (Madonsela, 2016).

The Public Protector’s report is popularly known as the “state capture report,” referring to corruption enabling powerful individuals, institutions, companies, or groups to influence a nation’s policies, legal environment, and economy to benefit their private interests, often with negative consequences for economic development, regulatory quality, and the provision of public services (Martini, 2016).

These allegations are likely to intensify citizens’ already-deep concerns about official corruption and inadequate accountability. Findings from Afrobarometer’s 2015 survey show widespread perceptions of increasing corruption and impunity for officials who break the law, along with substantial declines in confidence in the president, satisfaction with his performance (Lekalake, 2015), and trust in key political institutions (Chingwete, 2016).

While South Africans increasingly support media and citizen oversight over the government, most do not believe that elections are an effective mechanism for holding their leaders accountable, and only a slim majority believe that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption, indicating a need for targeted empowerment efforts.

Rorisang Lekalake

Rorisang Lekalake is a senior analyst/methodologist at Afrobarometer

Sibusiso Nkomo

Sibusiso is Programme Manager, Africa Office at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership