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Key findings
  • Two-thirds (64%) of South Africans say the level of corruption in the country increased “somewhat” or “a lot” in the past year, an improvement from 83% who thought so in 2015. Only one in six (16%) believe corruption decreased
  • While a majority (58%) of South Africans believe ordinary people can fight corruption, almost two-thirds (63%) say reporting incidents of corruption risks retaliation or other negative consequences.
  • The proportion of South Africans who think that “most” or “all” officials in the Presidency are corrupt decreased by 7 percentage points, from 46% in 2015 to 39%. Popular perceptions of pervasive corruption showed little improvement with regard to members of Parliament (44%) and rose by 9 percentage points for judges and magistrates (32%).
  • Among respondents who had contact with basic public services in the previous year, one in four (26%) say they paid a bribe to avoid a problem with the police, while about half as many paid bribes to access school assistance (14%) or government identity documents (13%).
  • A majority of South Africans say it is likely that people – especially the wealthy – can pay a bribe to avoid taxes, avoid going to court, and register land that does not belong to them.

In his first State of the Nation Address, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (2018) announced “a new dawn” signaling the end of “all the negativity that has dogged our country,” including perceptions of widespread corruption under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

Heeding calls from the judiciary and civil society, Ramaphosa has implemented a judicial commission of enquiry into “state capture,” the pernicious corruption within state institutions that has dominated South Africa’s media and public discourse (Chipkin & Swilling, 2018; Southall, 2018), and initiated reforms of malfunctioning state-owned enterprises. The private sector  has also come under scrutiny, including allegations that Steinhoff, a multinational furniture company, was involved in illegal trading (McKune & Thompson, 2018) and that global consulting firms provided support to undermine state entities (Bogdanich & Forsythe, 2018; Niselow, 2018).

Given corruption’s negative effects on the provision of government services and citizens’ trust in institutions and leaders (Felton & Nkomo, 2018), it is worth asking whether South Africans are seeing the “new dawn” that Ramaphosa has promised. Findings from the 2018 Afrobarometer survey show modest improvements in perceived corruption in the Presidency. But most South Africans still see corruption as increasing and bribery as an effective way of bypassing the law.

Moreover, efforts to curb corruption will be hampered by a widespread perception that reporting instances of corruption risks retaliation.

Mikhail Moosa

Mikhail Moosa is project leader for the South African Reconciliation Barometer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Afrobarometer’s nation