Corruption in the South African public service: Is the Anti-Corruption Task Team’s multidisciplinary approach to investigating corruption allegedly committed by South African public service officials effective?

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Widespread corruption allegedly committed by South African public service officials is a concern among members of the public, since it appears the country has transformed into a predatory state. Corruption among South African public service officials has encroached upon every aspect of society, government and business (Chêne 2014; Msimang 2015; Nicolaides 2018; Mantshantsha 2018). To some extent, the legal anti-corruption framework has also been ineffectual in efforts to combat corruption, and in some cases the public sees even the criminal justice system as being corrupt. Chêne (2012:7, citing Boucher et al. 2007) cautions that “a corrupt justice sector promotes discretionary enforcement of the law and has a corrosive impact on state legitimacy”, and therefore combating corruption within the public sector “may involve strengthening the legal anti-corruption framework and building an effective criminal justice system, including an independent judiciary and effective law institutions”. The Independent Commission against Corruption (2019) warns that when corrupt activities are hidden and unrestricted in the public service, this may be the basis for serious destruction through undermining the community’s trust in government, diminishing public resources and capital, triggering injustice through advantaging some at the expense of others, rendering operations ineffective, and causing reputational damage, which makes it difficult to recruit and retain quality employees and to obtain value for money in tender procedures.

Olaniyan (2014) states that corrupt activities in the public sector greatly affect the most vulnerable individuals. A country’s corrupt activities deter investment, hamper budgetary development and undermine the rule of law. However, expediting the efficient investigation of corruption sends a clear message to public servants that corruption will not be tolerated, although the effect diminishes when the investigation is unduly prolonged. Chêne (2012:7, citing Bolongoita 2005) suggests that the focus should be on making corruption a “high risk low reward activity through measures aimed at increasing the risks of effective detection, investigation and prosecution”. Chêne (2012:8) adds: “The criminalisation of corruption can be an effective approach for countries where enforcement is a feasible and realistic option. When this is not the case, such an approach can be counter-productive and result in inflating the returns of criminal acts, which could create financial incentives for corruption.” 

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) ranks countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption and reflects the perspectives of observers from around the globe, including specialists and business people living and working in the nations and territories evaluated. The CPI scores nations and territories on a scale from zero (exceptionally corrupt) to 100 (clean, no corruption). As illustrated by Transparency International (2017; 2019), utilising the CPI, South Africa scored a total of 43 on the scale in 2012, 42 in 2013, 44 in 2014, 44 in 2015, 45 in 2016, 43 in 2017, and 44 in 2019. These scores indicate that multifaceted corrupt activities are omnipresent in the South African public service. A poor score is a likely indication of far-reaching corrupt activities, the absence of consequential discipline for corrupt activities, and public institutions that do not react to the population’s needs.

This article, which is based on a qualitative empirical study conducted in Gauteng, South Africa, aims to assess the effectiveness of the multidisciplinary approach to investigating corruption in the public service followed by the Anti-Corruption Task Team of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation. In-depth individual interviews were conducted with a sample (n=17) of the Anti-Corruption Task Team (ACTT) participants. This article is based on empirical research for a DPhil degree (Smit 2019). A single instrumental case study design was followed in this study. The ACTT acted as the single instrumental case. The following participants of the ACTT were selected as the sample (n=17) for this study, since they had the necessary knowledge and experience to provide information-rich data: 

  • eight DPCI investigators attached to the ACTT who were investigating corruption in the public service
  • two advocates who provided the ACTT with legal guidance at the commencement of investigations as well as legal opinions on legislation
  • three forensic investigators who provided the ACTT with assistance during witness consultation, drafting of affidavits, and the identifying of witnesses and evidence
  • two external forensic chartered accountants who analysed specific banking records of suspects and/or their respective companies to assist the ACTT in identifying possible money laundering, corruption and racketeering through these records
  • two external cyber forensic experts who assisted the ACTT in utilising electronic data to confirm the authenticity of electronic documents and the verification of hash values. 

Given the sensitive nature of corruption within government, various government departments did not respond to requests to participate in this study and were consequently excluded. A number of ACTT investigators chose not to participate in the study. Individual in-depth interviews were conducted with the purposively selected sample and were electronically recorded. Data collected from the in-depth interviews was transcribed and thereafter analysed. Transcripts were additionally analysed and verified by an experienced, independent co-coder. Permission to conduct this study was obtained from the SAPS Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI) and from each selected external service provider/consultant. Ethical approval to conduct this study was granted by the University of South Africa’s research ethics committee. 

The findings of this study suggest that the multidisciplinary approach followed by the ACTT to investigate corruption in the South African public service has not been executed effectively. Various inhibiting internal and external factors experienced by ACTT team members, such as the elimination of the team’s independence, unjustified political interference, inexperienced managers, lack of cooperation and coordination among departments represented in the team, inadequate human and physical resources, and inferior investigative capability levels, undermine the multidisciplinary approach and render it ineffective.

Based on these findings, we recommend the following:

The mandate, aims, objectives, structure, independence and selection criteria for the ACTT’s allocated corruption investigations should be aligned with the allocation of resources, logistical support and budget. The streamlining of the ACTT to improve its effectiveness and the speeding up of prosecutions are of the utmost importance. Most role players at the ACTT have a purely investigative mandate. Thus it is important to ensure the effective coordination of gathered information as well as the sharing of intelligence between team members. Coordinated decisions about which role player is to commence with a specific aspect of the investigation should be made in advance. Effectively turning the tide against corruption involves an approach on various levels, using specific knowledge and skills from diverse fields. Adequate resources should be allocated to the ACTT to enable them to effectively investigate allegations of corrupt practices. Only personnel with the necessary skills, experience, knowledge and aptitude to investigate multifaceted corruption in the public sector should be appointed to the ACTT. The team should draw extensively from multiple disciplines to rethink anti-corruption responses beyond ordinary limits and to achieve solutions in a different way. This would involve giving investigators instant access to various databases and intelligence sources during their investigation process.

Anti-corruption structures need to be made more effective at both the investigative and the prosecution level. Accordingly, the ACTT’s independence should be reviewed and secured as a matter of urgency. Team members should be subjected to frequent integrity testing. This process should be transparent and implemented uniformly among members. Those who do not obtain the relevant security clearance through integrity testing should be removed. The ACTT should have an effective retention policy in place to ensure that expertise is not lost and the task team’s skills level is not depleted to the point where they are no longer able to operate effectively. Successful anti-corruption agencies (ACAs) need to have rapid access to information held by a wide variety of national authorities, for example customs, tax departments, police and courts, and therefore effective coordination mechanisms need to be in place. The compartmentalisation of departments functioning in silos is detrimental to the combating of public service corruption. Corruption requires specialised responses for a successful investigation process. Accordingly, it is recommended that a specialised anti-corruption court be established. The success of any ACA depends mainly on political will to address corruption and on independence in doing so, and it is thus imperative to have political backing for the efficacy of an ACA. In the oversight of an ACA it is also essential that relevant NGOs, opposition parties and government be granted an equal role to ensure that cases are dealt with on merit and are not subject to political agendas.

This study therefore recommends the establishment of a single anti-corruption agency that is independent organisationally, financially, functionally and politically, since the country continually ranks poorly internationally in terms of the leading global indicators of public sector corruption.

Keywords: Anti-Corruption Task Team (ACTT); corruption; Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation; multidisciplinary approach; public service


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Korrupsie in die Suid-Afrikaanse staatsdiens: Is die Teenkorrupsietaakspan se multidissiplinêre benadering in die ondersoek na beweerde korrupsie onder staatsamptenare doeltreffend?

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