Insight Newsletter Issue 14

Unpacking public perception of corruption

What constitutes corruption? In what context is corruption discussed? Are public perceptions of corruption realistic or not, and how prevalent is it in society? These are some of the questions that arise when we explore the concept.


In a number of research studies by the Department of Communications (DoC) corruption was spontaneously raised as a challenge in focus group discussions across all demographic groups, irrespective of which theme was explored during the fieldwork.


This prompted the hypothesis that the public used the word corruption broadly, and even in relation to cases that did not necessarily meet the textbook definition of it. We were curious to investigate  assumptions of corruption by the public and whether South Africans recognised their own complicity in acts of corruption. In addition, we  explored whether the government was being unfairly judged.

According to the Research Report on Corruption, Non Compliance and Weak Organisations (2012), corruption is “an act of private abuse or private misuse or private appropriation”.


Insight 1 ...Corruption is a term often used loosely to refer to a range of issues

It is clear from research findings (DoC Qualitative Research 2013) that corruption is of concern to everyone in society; however a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations arise when different population groups describe it. For example, groups scoring low in the Living Standards Measurement (LSM) tend to link examples of corruption with service delivery aimed at addressing socio-economic challenges, such as the grant system.

For youth however, corruption has a broader meaning in the sense that it encapsulates anything deemed to be wrong or incorrect; though not necessarily corrupt. It has almost become a slang word for everything that is disruptive.

The middle to higher LSM groups seem to acknowledge their role in the cycle of corruption; however in the same vein the assumption is that the public sector is the main instigator of corruption.

Considering the above nuances, corruption can best be described as a multifaceted phenomenon that affects all sectors of society. South Africans may experience it differently based on their own frame of reference and personal circumstances.

However, the golden thread across all segments is agreement on the ‘wrongfulness’ and ‘social disorder’ that comes in its wake. Common to the definitions and experiences of corruption above are feelings of helplessness/resignation to the realities of corruption; suggesting that corruption is seen as a societal problem that cannot be eradicated.

Insight 2 ...Perceptions of corruption need to be challenged by government

Measuring perceptions on the ‘direction of the country’ is a good indicator of public confidence, social stability and the preparedness of citizens to listen to, absorb, understand, agree and even support government communication.
DoC National Tracker Research results (Figure 1), show that as of April-June 2014 South Africans were divided over the direction of the country. DoC research has been trying to understand the causes of the shift in public sentiment.
When respondents were asked why they think the country is going in the wrong direction, the most mentioned reasons were:
• government corruption (26%)
• poor service delivery (23%)
• high rate of unemployment (22%)
• high crime rate (14%)
Figure 1: Public perceptions on the direction of the country
These results point to the growing perception that corruption is endemic in the country. Of concern is that respondents placed emphasis on government corruption as the reason for the country going in the wrong direction. Qualitative findings also reinforce the perception of that corruption is growing.
In summary, while perceptions about corruption getting worse may not necessarily be a true reflection of the actual reality, if left unchallenged the consequences thereof will be that the gains made by government since democracy will be undermined or dismissed. This argument is shown in more detail in the next section.


Insight 3 ...The gains we make in delivering services are overshadowed by growing perception of corruption

Figure 2 (below) shows that although ratings on specific service delivery by local government are positive, ratings on the performance of local government in general are negative. This means that South Africans do not necessarily know which services fall within the ambit of local government or they are not making the link between service delivery and local government. This also suggests that negative perceptions do negate positive performance areas by local government.
Exacerbating the negative perceptions about local government are perceptions by the public that councillors perpetuate corruption through nepotism, unfair allocation of houses and through embezzlement of public funds which results in poor service delivery.
Figure 2: Local government performance
Source: DoC National Tracker Study

Insight 4 ...Ethics vs. functionality?

Ultimately, what emerges from research findings is the tension caused by the perception that corruption has become an inevitable part of daily life in the country.
While respondents acknowledge that corruption is wrong, there seems to be an acceptance that it cannot be avoided.


In conclusion

From these findings it can be seen that perceptions of corruption are often based on anecdotes, assumptions or a loose interpretation of the concept. In some instances, particularly among the youth, the word corruption has even been infused in daily language as a slang term.
What stands out is that these perceptions negate the gains made by government and thus need to be addressed.
The public sector, in South Africa and globally, bears the brunt of public perception and criticism when it comes to corruption. This is also often done without taking into consideration that private enterprise also engages in corruption.
A contributing factor to cycle of corruption is that individuals are often complacent and denialist about their own complicity.

Communication is key...

Government communication needs to boldly and strongly challenge this growing perception of corruption by:

  • Demonstrating strong government action against corrupt individuals, companies and state officials.
  • Emphasising that it is a broader societal challenge that has to be addressed by everyone, while emphasising ways in which government is dealing with corruption, collusion and other forms of corrupt activities.
  • Publicise high profile cases where public officials and private companies or individuals have perpetrated corrupt activities or have colluded.
  • Mobilise society through campaigns to take a firm stand against corruption.
  • Highlight the complicity of individuals in perpetuating corruption and emphasise that we all have a role to play in ending corruption.
  • Encourage active citizenship in the fight against corruption by echoing the sentiment ‘Together We Move South Africa Forward,’ to ensure that communities take the responsibility to work with government in combatting corruption.


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