The state of public integrity in South Africa

Occasional Paper 1/2022

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Author: Dr Marius Oosthuizen

BTH, Hons BTH, MSF, M.Phil, Ph.D

The state of public integrity in South Africa


A paper addressing the current state of public integrity in South Africa, examining the impact of poor public integrity on societal stability, coordination and national decision-making. Defining an ideal-state and approach to enhanced public integrity in South Africa.

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Definition of public integrity

Public integrity has been defined as:

“The consistent alignment of, and adherence to, shared ethical values, principles and norms for upholding and prioritising the public interest over private interests in the public sector” (OECD, 2017).

From this definition we see the focus of public integrity as being fairly narrow, and related specifically to the management of affairs in the public sector. Importantly, this definition emphasises the prioritisation of public interest over private interest. As such, the definition which the OECD uses, is centred on the question of whether public affairs are managed in such a way that the prioritisation of public interests predominate in government.

Another important aspect of the definition is the manner in which it links public integrity to the role of ethical values, principles and norms, and the manner in which these are upheld. Specifically, this conception of public integrity emphasises the consistent alignment of public affairs in government to ethical foundations, as a test of their integrity.

The need for an expanded concept of public integrity

While being a useful definition of public integrity in general terms, especially when examining conduct in the public sector, the OECD definition could be argued to not be adequate when assessing public integrity in the South African setting at a national level.

For the purposes of this paper, we will refer to the OECD definition as the narrow definition, and contemplate an alternative expanded or multi-dimensional definition. As illustrated by figure 1. below, it follows that the focus of the narrow definition emphasises anti-corruption and the pursuit of governance and accountability in government. The test then, of the level of public integrity in a given national government system, is the level to which it prioritises public interest and does so in accordance with shared ethical values, principles and norms. But for this to be achieved in the South African setting, public integrity must be understood as, governance for the public good in all sectors nationally – including at the interface of the sectors.

Figure 1: Narrow definition of public integrity

In the context of ordinary state or governmental affairs, the narrow definition seems appropriate. That is to say, any government, acting on behalf of its public, is expected to do so in accordance with the interests of the public and with the public’s ethics, principles and norms, upheld.

However, in the specific South African case, this narrow definition is insufficient to navigate the complex reality of the South African situation where public, corporate and social affairs are intertwined and inter-dependant. We will return to this point, but for the time being will consider the operational environment in which public integrity is expressed.

Ethics of Functional Silos

Various functional silos exist within the public sector, each with their own focus in terms of the public goods or services they aim to deliver. These range, as shown in figure 2. below, from safety and security, environmental management and social cohesion, to matters pertaining to youth, economic access, health, education and increasingly, digital access. This list is not exhaustive but merely demonstrates the range of contexts in which public integrity is contemplated, and more importantly, the range of functional silos, each with its own ethic, in which public integrity must be upheld. This is important to note if we are to contemplate the state and future of public integrity.

In democratic South Africa, the functional silos are overseen and managed from a top-down point of view, by the dual processes of procedural democratic (through party-political and participatory policy processes, including the legislature), and day-to-day public management in government by political appointees and bureaucrats. It is in these realms, of politics and governance, that public integrity is expressed or negated. The situation in the private sector is similar in that governance frameworks are constituted by laws and regulations arising from the legislature and government departments, and they are upheld or negated by managers in the ranks of corporate South Africa.

However, and crucially, the overall process is an expression of what is first and foremost an underlying foundation of public values and duties – agreed upon by the society. In the South African case, the Constitution is understood to be the reference point for the public values and duties that underpin the political and governance processes, and by extension, the public management or corporate silos and sectors.

Figure 2: Ethics of Functional Silos

However, to continue the earlier point about South Africa’s complexity: the diversity of cultural, worldview and socio-economic realities of citizens across the South African landscape alongside the interdependence of the public and private spheres, can be argued to make the notion of a homogenous public ethic illusive.

Although the constitution is the formal agreed upon framework for the South African nation state, the question remains as to what degree alignment and authentic inculcation of the content thereof has occurred in the society at large, public servants and the institutions that make up the private sector. For instance, are values of individualism in some quarters and notions of collectivism in others, capable of being simply co-accommodated within the constitution’s current human rights framework? Are market-values and their accompanying structures on the one hand, and state-interventionist policies preferred by many ruling elites on the other, easily accommodated side-by-side by the current constitutional aspirations?

The answer is of course ‘no’. The contradictions that mark the current South African social, economic and political reality, in terms of diversity but also in terms of relations, remain an unresolved gordian knot. What the constitution does, is to point the way from where the society is to where it wants to be, but it does not describe where it is at present.

When we therefore think of public integrity in the South African context, and want to measure and reflect on the standards thereof, we ought to take a broader societal perspective. We need to reflect more deeply about the foundations on which it must be built. When we assess specific cases of public integrity in the governance silos contemplated in figure 2 above, we must also do so in light of the embodied reality of how each silo translates into the lived-realities of everyday citizens.

Social location and diversities of ethical imperatives

To consider an example that relates to the social dimension of public integrity: One might contemplate the day-to-day reality of a family living in Soweto, the rapidly formalising informal settlement of the apartheid period, then known as the South-Western Township. For the so-called Soweto family, of whom 40-60% of family members are unemployed and increasingly dependant on social grants, the notion of a public good such as free access to electricity is a matter of day-to-day survival and dignity in a modern, developing society. Without free energy provided by the state, it is impossible for such a family to stay warm in winter, to cook food, or have their children study or read books at night. A failure of public integrity then in terms of energy provision by government is a violation of or threat to human dignity at the most basic level.

Comparatively, an upper middle class family in an established apartheid-era suburb, who duly pays their rates and taxes, does so to ensure that their up-to-date electricity bill will assure them of energy provision by the state. This will enable them to for instance charge their high-tech devices and stay connected to their offices and schools that increasingly operate online in a post Covid-19 environment. In the first community, state provision of basic services, including energy, is a matter of survival. In the latter, state provision of energy is a matter of progress and comfort. These social differences often play out along racial and group-identity lines in present-day South Africa and means that public integrity as it relates to a particular silo of government translates differently into the ethical imperatives that underpin the public good being provided in different social locations.

Therefore, in a situation where the state fails to provide energy security, either due to corruption’s decaying effects on the state’s energy system or a breakdown in state capacity, or due to a failure of overall resources, the families in these communities’ rights are understood to be violated in a very different way. Whereas it is an ethical imperative for the state to provide energy security to both families, in the first case the state is solving for energy poverty to secure citizens’ basic dignity, and in the second it is solving for economic security and leisure to ensure human flourishing.

In the first instance, the state has an imperative to provide for the citizens even if they cannot comply with their duty to contribute to the public purse. In the latter, the state must provide for the citizens precisely because they have fulfilled their duty to the public purse. As a result the notion of fairness in relation to state disbursements in each case, must be contextually understood. The ethical foundation of each is different, but both are important to public integrity. When one then overlays the challenges arising from limited resources available to the state, and the present impetus for the transformation of the racial composition of South Africa’s human resource component of the public services and of its socio-economic systems, the matter is complicated further.

Simply stated, for the state to deliver services to one party amid resource constraints and so-called transformation imperatives, it must do so by limiting its capacity to deliver services to others. This creates ethical conundrums and competing interests in relation to how public integrity is understood. If the state must act in preferential consideration of one party over another and balance their interests, difficult judgements must be made about what constitutes public integrity. This is complicated further by the interwoven interests of the private sector among and between these same communities contemplated in the example above.

Interwoven private and public sector interests in society

A historically typical pattern of interests would be that the interests of the suburban citizens are widely served by the private sector due to their formal employment and disposable income levels, while the township citizens are more fundamentally and increasingly dependent on the state. Where interconnected interdependencies do exist, the South African pattern is usually that the private sector, benefiting the suburban citizen, indirectly benefits the township citizen through informal or low-paying jobs and via the tax contributions of the formally employed which contribute a considerable proportion of government revenues.

As such, in cases where the state decides to advance the interests of the private sector, it disproportionately benefits the interests of the privileged and only in a secondary manner, the interests of the disadvantaged. The counterpoint is of course that, when the state favours the disadvantaged at the neglect of the private sector, it does so at the material disadvantage of the privileged, given the current composition of the South African political economy. Choices about allocation of state resources between different sectors are in and of themselves choices about public integrity.

The implication of the above is that public integrity in South Africa cannot be contemplated in a narrow sense by focusing on public interest as a unitary or one-dimensional item. Nor can it account for the interdependencies in the national system by only focussing on the day-to-day governance and management of the public sector only.

In light hereof, as depicted in figure 3 below, a more comprehensive definition of public integrity is needed, that accounts for the multi-level conception of societal relations, and that accounts for the social dynamics in South Africa when considering public integrity.

Figure 3: Multi-level perspective of public integrity

Public integrity might therefore be defined in as follows:

“Nurturing the level of alignment between foundational societal values and norms, through formal institutional arrangements and the constitutional framework in a bi-directional manner. The effective management of societal interests, at social, economic and political level, through and within public institutions. The expression of personal and community values, through sectoral and group ethics, within the laws and regulation created and upheld.”

Within such a definition, the role of the public sector in upholding public integrity is crucial, but exists in a dynamic interplay with the role of the private sector and of the citizenry and other social institutions at large.

The state of public integrity in South Africa

From this point of view, an assessment of public integrity requires an analysis of a range of issues including:

  • The quality of public sector governance and of private sector governance

  • The extent to which the interests of the social partners, government, business, labour and society at large, are served and promoted.

  • The emerging institutional culture evident across the aforementioned dimensions, in terms of governance.

  • How the political process is contributing or undermining the aforementioned and is being itself conducted in relation to ethical considerations.

  • Whether decision-making in governance, policy- and law-making, is taking place in line with shared national interests.

  • Whether the democratic conduct of society, whether in expressing their political views, pursuing their economic interests, or their discontent through the media and forms of public speech, promote the shared national interest.

This paper therefore is interested in the question of progress or regress of these multiple factors, bearing in mind the immense scope which they represent. It therefore can merely provide a broad overview of the state of public integrity by reflecting on a range of societal phenomena against the backdrop of the multi-level definition of public integrity outlined above.

When public integrity fails: corruption, including sextortion

It is widely reported that South Africa is facing endemic corruption. The Analysis of Corruption Trends (ACT) report by Corruption Watch indicates that illicit acts, including the stealing of public monies or incidences of nepotism continued apace in 2021. Thanks in large part to 1964 whistle-blowers in the public and private sectors, the nature and scope of the corruption problem is well known.

Corruption Watch observed an annual increase of 12% of acts of corruption in the South African Police Service (SAPS), and disturbingly, complaints of instances where school principals operated outside the regulations of their provincial departments by hiring unqualified teachers and soliciting sexual favours from temporary teachers in exchange for safeguarding their jobs (Pillay, 2021).

These two instances, one in the security silo and another in the human development silo, are indicative of the depth of ethical decay that has occurred in South Africa. In the first silo, the ethic of public protection and adherence to the law and rules of society is central to public integrity, but shockingly acts of corruption are being perpetrated by the very individuals tasked with presiding over public compliance.

This is starkly demonstrated by the recent case where a police officer is reported to have demanded a bribe from citizens whose family member had been kidnapped (Shange, 2021). Such conduct in the SAPS represents not only illegal and unethical activity in a broad sense but embodies the antithesis of the ethic intended to govern the silo of state activity.

Similarly, in the cases of corruption in the health sector where the provision of personal protection equipment and other services were used to siphon monies from the state during the Covid-19 pandemic emergency response (Corruption Watch, 2020), public integrity is eroded at its core. Such a case represents a direct betrayal of the ethic which underpins the governance silo’s existential purpose, of using public resources to promote the health of the public. Such conduct points to a liquidation of the personal ethical substance of many who occupy positions of public service and thereby a departure from the foundations of public integrity.

Misuse of public resources for private interests

According to Pijoos (2021), the most common forms of corruption are reported to be bribery (28%), procurement irregularities (24%), employment irregularities (11%), abuse of power (9%) and embezzlement of funds (8%). Pijoos also observes that major cities continue to be affected by corruption, with reports to Corruption Watch by whistle-blowers in 2020, rising to as many as 125 from the City of Cape town, 166 from eThekwini, 325 from the City of Tshwane, 354 from Ekurhuleni and 700 reports from Johannesburg. Such occurrences are not limited to the public sector.

According to Cala (2021), whistle-blowers allege that “companies are encouraged to corrupt the municipality by billing double the amount for services”. Pijoos (2021) argues that “consequently, the hedges of the country’s democracy are unprotected because politicians and administrators are serving personal, factional and private interests. Not even a global pandemic could make them pause and think about the people they promised to serve.”

Corruption Watch has increasingly highlighted the need for the vulnerability of whistle-blowers to be addressed as a matter of urgency. According to Ncala (2021) this is crucial if there is to be any meaningful shift in the efforts to eradicate corruption. To illustrate the point, the recent fleeing from South Africa by whistle-blower Athol Williams, who is said to have been instrumental in the surfacing of illicit acts relating to State Capture.

Williams’ case points to the urgency of the problem. In his letter of explanation for leaving South Africa, Williams refers to the assassination of whistle-blower Babita Deokaran, who was gunned down while dropping her daughter off at school, after blowing the whistle on corruption in the Gauteng Provincial Department of Health (Lindeque, 2021).

In his public letter, Williams further laments the endemic state of corruption:

"We have a very dangerous situation in South Africa where we accept the narrative that only a few bad apples are involved in state capture. The reality is that there are many important and influential people who we revere in society, who we offer awards to, who sit on boards and committees and lead grand initiatives and organisations, who are in fact enabling this capture and benefitting from it. The corrupted web stretches across our society and needs bold action to clear this out. It starts with each of us. Challenge those around you to act with conscience and with courage.

Local governance and SOEs governance - Auditor-General of South Africa’s report

Amid these challenges, a positive fact that must not be forgotten is that the World Bank in 2021 ranked South Africa's Auditor General as one of only two "fully independent" watchdog entities of their kind in the world. This makes the reporting of the AGSA all the more important as a source of perspective on the state of public integrity (World Bank, 2021).

In 2021 the AGSA reported that in the Department of Public Works, to which SOE's such as Transnet, Eskom, SAA and Denel report, irregular expenditure of R25.9 billion was identified. Simultaneously, the AGSA reported that the 257 municipalities incurred an estimated R19 billion in irregular expenditure and over R14 billion in unauthorized expenditure, and another R2 billion in fruitless and wasteful expenditure. High levels of maladministration continue to undermine municipal performance, with News24's "Out of Order Index" estimating an additional 43 municipalities, over and above the 87 already red-flagged by government, being in danger of collapsing. The AGSA found that similar trends are now increasing in South African prisons. The system meant to mete out punitive justice is itself beset with corruption (News24, 2021a).

Similar to the SAPS case and the education system and health system above, the dire state of governance in local municipalities strikes at the core of South Africa’s overall capacity to maintain public integrity. Interestingly, much of the maladministration in local government is said to be attributable to low levels of skills among officials and the mismanagement of supply chains and municipal finance (AGSA, 2021). Municipal finance, as a key component of the broader local governance system, has been shown to have been bedevilled by problems associated with the African National Congress' (ANC) policy of 'cadre deployment', but similar challenges have occurred in municipalities run by opposition parties. This points to a deeper systemic and societal origin, as a causal factors to the problem.

Crucially, in terms of managing and furthering the interests of the public, the decay of local governance has resulted in an overall weakening of economic prospects for South Africa, not least by increasing the cost of financing in state entities as their risk profiles rise but also through rising administrative costs passed on to the economy, and to the consumer. This is evidenced, for instance, by the recent further downgrade of Transnet by the Moody's ratings agency in November 2021 due to a qualified audit opinion.

Daily Maverick's Xolisa Phillips attests to the contestation which occurred between Transnet, Treasury and the AGSA over the audit-findings, where the parties deliberated the issues contributing to the finding as it relates to matters of compliance with the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA). As one of many such contestations between SOEs, Treasury and the AGSA, this denotes a systemic weakness in the governance environment, its framework and the related capacity of the public sector to comply with its own rules.

In fact, according to the AGSA, as much as 12% of audited government departments and entities’ “ability to continue as a going concern” is now in doubt, and this includes Eskom which reported a R20.5 billion deficit in 2019-2020. The AGSA put this down to “widespread weaknesses in basic internal controls and little movement towards investing in preventative controls” as well as an overall annual unauthorised expenditure increase from R1.65 billion the previous year to R18.12 billion in 2019-20 (News24, 2021b).

Other examples of the siphoning off of public funds include the construction of local social infrastructure, like the sports facilities, such as the incomplete Matatiele sport facilities in the Eastern Cape of which R18.9 million of the project’s budgeted R27 million has been paid, but barely any infrastructure has been erected (Phillip, 2021). All of these cases exemplify a dynamic where, in light of the multi-level definition of public integrity, there is a lack of alignment between citizen values, institutional conduct and the rule of law.

Weak proactive monitoring

Notwithstanding the AGSA’s independence lauded above, the body itself is confronted with operational difficulties such as the inadequate implementation of the R150 million real-time audits of Covid-19 spending in 2020—2021, due to which the AGSA ran into a budget shortfall of R57 million. Given that the AGSA reported to Parliament’s Standing Committee on the Auditor-General that some of the real-time audit projects were abandoned or redirected and others didn’t achieve the required objectives. The contribution of the AGSA to preventing future corruption remains questionable while its reporting, after the fact, remains crucial (Gerber, 2021).

Taken together, the fraying of governance standards coupled with an incapacity to arrest a general decline in ethics, does not bode well for public integrity in the near future. The task of improving public integrity will extend far beyond the removal of so-called “bad apples” in the bureaucracy of government, and require a national reconstruction effort of the ethical foundations.

Extension of basic income grants

As part of managing the interests of society, South Africa has now developed an extensive and sophisticated social support system centred on direct cash grants. Government is now considering extending the social security system with the introduction of a basic income grant. Considered the Department of Social Development’s pre-eminent policy proposal, the grant would extend the budget of the department beyond the current R15 billion in unauthorised expenditure incurred during the Covid-19 pandemic (Dayimani, 2021), and form part of a mitigation strategy as government responds to the socio-economic setbacks experienced by citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic.

What this means is that even as the state is being weakened by the self-interested abuses of public sector and private sector opportunists, the burden of public interests is shifting increasingly from the shoulders of individuals or corporates to that of the state. An embattled state, both in terms of resources and of integrity, is extending itself to being a de facto caretaker state.

Naturally, argued from the point of human rights, of national security and of social stability, this policy posture is attractive and somewhat inevitable. But, considered in the context of the overall weakening of economic capacity, partly due to pre-Covid factors such as a lack of investor confidence and then after the pandemic, partly due to a demand-side shock, the national system is weakened even as its burdens rise. The prospect then of a tenuous public budget management environment, within the context of a shifting political landscape, is that anti-corruption must be prioritised at a time when there is less resources in circulation generally.

This brings to the fore deep-seated and unresolved questions of whether the collectivist ethics of direct state care, versus the market ethic of indirect public benefit from the economic advancement of those who primarily benefit from the private sectors, ought to be the organising principle for public disbursements. The statists, will likely argue that more fiscal largess is both politically and morally expedient – an ethical imperative, and that the public risks associated with greater fiscal largess do not outweigh the ethical imperatives for social relief. Their market-minded opponents are likely to argue that fiscal prudence and demand-side stimulus in the core industrial and commercial economy should be prioritised on pragmatic, and from a systemic perspective, on social and long-term political grounds.

Crucially, these ethical and policy debates about distribution will proceed against the backdrop of persistent post-colonial and post-apartheid legacy systems and power relations, often undertaken along racial and community lines. Importantly, this latter fact will blur the lines of public integrity between the transformation imperatives cited earlier, and individual rights relating to property, economic freedoms and competition. As controversial as it may be, it will likely mean that questionable acts of nepotism and political interference in economic processes, in the state or private sector, will continue but be shrouded in pseudo-moralistic terms by their protagonists - according to which the ends of economic transformation, justify the means of rule-breaking.

Accountability for corruption has broken down

To demonstrate this dynamic, according to Corruption Watch the Register for Tender Defaulters, a national register created by The Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, is empty – meaning that zero suppliers found guilty of criminal offences from doing business with the government have been listed (Cronje, 2021). This signals a total breakdown in accountability and a symbiosis between self-interest and a decline in public integrity.

It is seemingly not a stretch to imagine that the lack of accountability at the coalface is related to the interwoven interests between the public and private sector elites, particularly at the upper levels of the social strata. South Africa’s society might be said to be presided over by a plutocratic elite, who have turned narrow interests into shared interest at the top (of power), in order to secure political and economic privilege. That this is, and has for long been a defining feature of South Africa’s political economy and subsequent relations in terms of distribution. That, if allowed to continue, will create a new form of patronage-based rent-seeking which continues to shape market structures and the resultant accumulation of privilege.

From that point of view, the specific instances of mutually-beneficial corruption between private and public sector actors, go beyond personal and organisational governance failures and constitute a societal plague of injustice and ethical depravity. It must therefore be asked: Can the current systems, the mid-level formal institutions that are operative between the level of the Constitutional framework at the top and the coalface of citizen interest at the bottom, be reformed?

Sources of reform

If so, where in the system is reform likely to emanate from? It seems unlikely that the private sector or public sector, at the apex or corporatist level, will enthusiastically lead a reform agenda that improves public integrity. It also seems obvious then, that current emerging efforts at political realignment that are in embryonic stage, constitute an attempt at forging a new and alternative political economy. The battle for better public integrity is in some ways also a class battle.

The key systemic risk for South Africa, is that a combination of unethical justifications, both at the citizens level due to deprivation, and at the organising level in politics, combine to high-jack South Africa’s transformation agenda in favour of a destructive revolutionary cycle of uncoordinated social change. As seen in the phenomena of insurgency and the associated looting spree in KwaZulu-Natal in July 2021, the outcomes of such action would amount to a destructive wake of national insecurity.

The impact of poor public integrity on South African society and state

In terms of public integrity, South Africa is caught between two tides as depicted in figure 4 below. On the one hand, the declining capacity and effectiveness of the state, due to institutional decay as well as resource constraints, and on the other, a rising tide of structural injustices often lamented as persistent poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Figure 4: Navigating between two tides

As these tides interact, they bring to the fore competing ethical imperatives that will test the very notion of what is considered public integrity.

It seems likely that, should they persist and not be arrested, public integrity’s foundations in relation to the seemingly opposed values or principles of collectivism versus market values will become more acute. So too, the tolerance for the disruptive effects of social change and fairness, either as evolutionary and staged, or as revolutionary and unsettling of old patterns of power and privilege sharpen.

The effects of these two foundational ethical divergencies and associated debates in the public discourse, and by extension in the policies and conduct of public and private actors and institutions, cannot be overstated. The result, depending on their outcomes, are extremely divergent future natural milieu, in which public integrity will be understood and practiced.

Without speculating about which ethical formulation is more likely to succeed in advancing the public interest, it seems obvious that neither an extreme revolutionary and collectivist ethic, nor a slow-burn combination of evolutionary change and market forces will advance South Africa’s public interest at a pace required for national stability.

What consequently emerges is a middle-ethic, which must continue to balance the interests of society in often seemingly contradictory ways. Whether tacit or codified, it suggests that a new set of trade-offs across South African society would be required for a new equilibrium to be sustained in terms of the social contract, given the new economic, political and social reality the nation faces in a post-pandemic South Africa.

Does the ethical foundation exist to rebuild public integrity?

The above observations of grotesque corruption at shopfloor and government department level, along with the broader systemic view, asks if the ethical foundation exists for a public integrity which is able to manage the landscape of interests at this time?

The constitution, with its deeply rooted humanist and rights orientated ethic, places at the centre equality and progressive change as its organising principle. It seems that the constitution is insufficiently expressive of the ethic which would need to underpin a patient moderation of expectations in relation to those same interests. The constitution on its own, is inept at articulating fairness in the current milieu.

By patient moderation, one does not mean the patience of the poor as they wait for a better life permitted for them from on high, be it through jobs or grants. Rather, the patient moderation also of business people who might exact greater profits, were they not taking account of the ethical imperatives of a newly democratic but still deeply traumatised society. So too, the patient moderation of a politically active class and new middle class, who now see their gains slowly diminish even as they taste upward mobility for the first time.

From the point of view of systems of ethical persuasion, South Africa does not have, perhaps not yet, a virtue ethic of citizen identity that can provide a basis for patient moderation. At the same time, the various constructs of collective identity and national belonging, be it the notion of a Rainbow Nation or unity amid diversity, are increasingly out of step with the national climate, and therefore unable to provide a foundation for an national public ethic. The risk thereof, is that a draconian state imposing rules and ethics in a deontological fashion runs the risk of further alienating an already distrustful population.

It may be the case, in light of South Africa’s topological social diversity - itself a function of apartheid spatial planning and discrimination – that a single and centralised national ethical foundation remains elusive for South Africa in the medium term. It may be that a decentralised, pluralistic foundation, made up of community-based networks of citizens’ interest, is the only realistic pursuit in search of a solid foundation on which to build for now.

Such a recognition would require a significant shift away from the current emphasis which has assumed mechanism of accountability as ideally centralised. Alongside the AGSA, National Prosecuting Authority and the judicial commissions, the strengthening of local and dispersed systems of accountability might be the most feasible instrument in practically improving public ethics.

It may be that the rule of law, first at the coalface of for instance local government oversight committees, are the building blocks of a new public ethic. Similarly, it may be that social cohesion and civil obedience, two sides of the same coin, do not in the short-term stem from the constitutional imperatives. Rather, that they stem from individual and community interests, coordinated by new forms of democratic participation. It may therefore be that the South African social contract, which in 1994-1999 stemmed from a grand national effort through codified instruments of institutionalisation, of which the constitution is an example, must now be complemented by a community-by-community basis. In such an approach, the national public ethic arises from a crescendo of diverse and citizen-driven foundations, as opposed to a singular liberation movement.

Harness codes of ethics and pledges for public integrity

What the state, government and large institutions in the private sector can do now, is to nurture the environment for the emergence of a new framework of good citizenship, in its own ranks and also in the public. A rebuilding of public integrity may therefore require a multi-pronged political, corporate and individual effort which places personal and shared integrity at the core of institutional culture-formation. In this vein, a strategic framework for national action on public integrity may be useful, but unlikely to succeed if it does not address the aforementioned societal contradictions. In that regard, a set of social compacting initiatives that surface and mediate interests, may be required within which the pursuit of public integrity can be couched.

Such large-scale social change would require that the levers for action and a theory of change be developed. Mechanisms such as new codes of ethics and a pledge for public integrity, developed in an embodied manner from within institutions, may be required. These efforts are unlikely to succeed until and unless high-profile gestures are forthcoming, that set a new standard for the prioritisation of public integrity.

Given the long-term developmental character of the challenges at hand, any successful national effort in this regard will have to involve the education system and the impartation of a core curriculum on public ethics and integrity among South African children, youth and adults. In addition, even as civil society becomes increasingly active in combating corruption, their role in expanding the scope and deepening the reach of a process of national reconstruction of public ethics will be crucial. In this vein, entities such as Right2Know, Corruption Watch, Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and other foundations, who have more recently been pitted against public and private sector actors, would need to become allies in a new national partnership for public integrity (Mafata, 2021).

What is to be done?

Implicit in the recommendations of this paper is a theory of change for the improvement of public integrity. The paper's theory of change rests on the multi-level framework for public integrity, which postulates that the constitutional framework is underpinned by the foundational values and norms of society, that these in turn inform public management conduct, which in turn manifests in the formal institutional arrangements of the state and of government as well as in the private sector in a reciprocal manner.

Against this backdrop, a reform agenda which prioritizes public integrity must of necessity pay attention to four imperatives:

  1. Strengthening the ethical foundation of society by building cultural familiarity with values, ethics and principles of common interest.

  2. Aligning and enhancing the codes, frameworks, systems and monitoring of public management to give expression to higher standards, as outlined in an agreed-upon a national ethical foundation.

  3. Rectifying the collapse of adherence to the law, regulation and norms of good ethical and governance practices in formal institutions.

  4. Pursuing the first three imperatives within the framework of the Constitution and in such a way as to give expression to the Constitution's human rights and equality-orientated conception of society.

The four imperatives can be advanced by the development of a national framework for the enhancement of public integrity, including the proposed development of a national curriculum on public ethics, to which citizens and public servants ought to become socialised.

Such a curriculum would include pedagogical strategies to familiarize citizens with matters relating to ethical decision making, values-based conduct, the negotiation of public priorities amid the ethical conundrums of resource constraints. Also, the skills required for debating the public interest in search of the common good, the creation of shared interest and the importance of the notion of a shared future for citizens and different communities.

The principles of diversity and participation would be crucial to a national effort of this kind, and ought to be geared toward enhancing transparency and accountability in the day-to-day functioning of the democratic governance process and of the economic order. Therefore, the foundational principle of the rule of law, as an expression of a shared commitment to a rules-based national order, should be sacrosanct. Practically, such a curriculum would need to address the skills gap which exists in the systems of public procurement and supply chains, to create the requisite capacity in the public sector to comply with its own rules. It would thereby need to enhance internal and preventative controls in all sectors as a result.

Importantly, such a framework and curriculum cannot be created by any singular state organ, government department or segment of society, but must of necessity be the expression of a joint national effort at finding the common values and shared interests that lie at the centre of an envisioned national democratic South Africa.

As previously argued, a single and centralised national ethical foundation is likely to remain illusive for South Africa in the medium term, and as such a national dialogical process must be set in motion.

As postulated, it may be that a decentralised, pluralistic foundation, made up of community-based networks of citizens’ interest, is the most realistic pursuit in search of a solid foundation on which to build national consensus for now. This would require catalysing an initiative that strengthens local and dispersed systems of accountability for the practical improvement of public ethics. For this reason, the vast array of knowledge networks such as universities, the faith communities and civil society, as well as the formal public and private sector institutions, would need to be orchestrated to participate in a national ethical reconstruction process.

Through such an evolutionary process of cultural restoration, a virtue ethic of citizen identity is expected to emerge, and can be codified, which would provide a basis for national ethical coherence in time. In pragmatic terms, it may provide the patient moderation required from citizens for the building of an increasingly fair democratic order. Such an effort, to quote Whistle-blower Williams once more, would require a revolution of "conscience and courage" from societal leaders, who would need to guard against short-term political expedience and self interest in their own ranks.


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Dayimani, M. 2021. Another dodgy multimillion-rand stadium project surfaces in Eastern Cape. [Online] Available at: [accessed date: October 2021].

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Pijoos, I. 2021. Corruption Watch: City of Joburg tops list with most corruption allegations. [Online] Available at: -africa,2021-08-18-corruption-watch-city-of-joburg-tops-list-with-most-corruption-allegations [accessed: November 2021].

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Further reading: Bibliography

Ferreira, I.W. 2021. Government Corruption in South Africa, Tummala, K.K. (Ed.) Corruption in the Public Sector: An International.

Fowkes, J. 2021. A hole where Ely could be: Democracy and trust in South Africa. International Journal of Constitutional Law. [Online] Available at: [accessed: December 2021].

Narotam, K. 2021. The impact of transformative constitutionalism in addressing the marginalization of domestic workers in post-apartheid South Africa with specific reference to Mahlangu and another minister of labour and others. [Online] Available at: University of Pretoria:196. [accessed: October 2021].

Rapanyane, M. B. 2021. Seizure of State Organs, Corruption and Unaccountability Promotion in South Africa: Case Study of Jacob Zuma Administration. African Journal of Development Studies (Formerly AFFRIKA Journal of Politics, Economics and Society), 11:251-270.

Sindane, N. 2021. Why decolonization and not transformative constitutionalism. Pretoria Student Law Review,15(1):236-154.

Teagle, A. 2021 South Africa needs a single anti-corruption unit and real-time monitoring. Human Sciences Research Council Review, 19(1):34-37.

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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.


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