As South Africa emerges from one of its darkest chapters, how can we take steps to dismantle corrupt systems and ensure fair and equal standards for all? How can we prevent corruption, or, where it exists, ensure it is identified and prosecuted, and its perpetrators are held to account? Corruption is not confined to one area of the world - across Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, the Americas, Europe and Asia, its prevalence has led to distrust in business and institutional leaders.

In South Africa, society’s confidence in transparency, accountability and fairness has plummeted, in large part because of ongoing and widespread ‘state capture’. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2017-18, South Africa dropped 14 places to 61st, with company executives ranking corruption as the most problematic factor for doing business. Trust in both public institutions and the ethical conduct of business has eroded. Eighty-three percent of South Africans have seen corruption getting worse over the last few years - the highest of any country in Africa.

A snapshot of South Africa's competitiveness, which declined in the latest report
Image: Global Competitiveness Report

A culture of impunity has taken hold, and consequences and accountability have fallen by the wayside. That culture of impunity now needs to be excised, and visibly so. Only integrity and ethical values imposed from the top down will help undo the damage, which has undermined the credibility of institutions. Strong and robust compliance systems play a critical role in detecting corruption and malfeasance. Understanding and appreciating why compliance is necessary is also crucial. It doesn’t matter how good your systems are - detecting wrongdoing still requires vigilance.

The events of the past few years are in variance to the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela, who would have turned 100 on July 18, 2018. Mandela espoused an ethos of ethical leadership and clean governance. He was also a proponent of a transparent, accountable and fair state, one in which society could have confidence. Mandela understood that in order to undo the structural legacy of apartheid - manifest in South Africa’s unequal wealth distribution and high Gini co-efficient - transparency, accountability and fairness were essential. Confidence, both by business and the citizenry, in a competent and capable state are essential and prerequisite ingredients for creating an environment that is not only conducive to investment, but that can enable people to fulfil their economic potential.

It is imperative that South Africa rehabilitate its reputation, and return to the values espoused by Mandela and the founding fathers of the ANC. Business and institutions need to work together to rebuild trust and integrity in the country’s economic and political systems. To achieve those objectives, the following steps must be taken. They will form a credible and sustainable approach to rooting out pervasive corruption, and instilling a culture that confers legitimacy on society and its key stakeholders.

1. Move away from a mindset focused solely on fighting corruption, to an approach based on building trust and integrity at all levels of society. Every leader needs to be seen to be acting ethically, openly and without fear or favour. Setting the correct tone at the top of government and business sends a critical signal to stakeholders and can make a significant impact, even in the short term. However, we must acknowledge that comprehensively addressing the legacies of the past will take considerable time and resources, and is likely to suffer setbacks along the way.

2. Commit to a change in behaviour by building a culture of integrity to bridge the trust divide. This requires responsive and responsible leadership to set the tone and lead by example.

3. Monitor judicial and Chapter Nine institutions, and law enforcement agencies such as the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority, to ensure they work hand in glove to create a criminal justice system that has credibility and the capacity to investigate and prosecute cases. This can help rebuild citizens’ trust in the system. The private sector can play its part by strengthening its corporate compliance systems to address existing and evolving challenges.

4. Understand that business leadership is critical for driving collective action. The private sector can spearhead the development of innovative networks for public-private cooperation to discuss and address anti-corruption in constructive and open dialogue. Business leaders should self-report, even when there is risk of organisational and personal exposure. They must also promote a culture that understands and appreciates the importance of applying compliance to systems in a robust manner. One pitfall in South Africa is a culture of non-compliance, which needs to be uprooted.

5. Enhance the uptake of technology and its application across stakeholders to reduce the opportunities for corruption. Big data, blockchain, artificial intelligence and e-governance systems are valuable tools in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of corrupt practices. Properly utilised, these tools can increase transparency and accountability to allow real-time monitoring of situations and transactions.

Strengthening institutions and dismantling networks of patronage, cronyism and corrupted systems are critical tasks in reinforcing an economy which caters to the needs of society on an inclusive basis. Similarly, increasing levels of trust is a fundamental requirement. Re-establishing South Africa’s position and profile internally and externally requires leadership from every stakeholder, candour from individuals and a collective commitment to secure human dignity for all, together with economic inclusion on a sustainable basis.

Only then will South Africa realise the vision of a free and fair society, in which every South African can achieve their true potential with their head held high. They will fulfil the dreams of their forebears and lay the foundation for future generations to enjoy real freedom, unshackled from the chains of the past. They will be able to achieve their goals, in a country characterised by integrity, compassion and determination.

Martin Kingston is on the Steering Committee of the Future of Trust and Integrity project for the World Economic Forum’s Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI).