Nearly half of South Africans paid a bribe in 2012 to get an essential service. The world average is around 25 percent. In terms of levels of corruption, the global watchdog Transparency International
rates South Africa in the same tier as countries like Afghanistan.
In its annual international report released this month, Transparency International found that 47 percent of South Africans said they paid a bribe in 2012.
"Corruption thrives when there's an absence of public accountability, where the levels of transparency in governance are lacking and where a culture of impunity takes root," said Paul Hoffman, director of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa
, admitting he is not surprised. "And all three of those factors are available in abundance in South Africa."
Hoffman said the country loses about 30 billion rand - or about $3 billion - in public funds each year to corruption.
There are frequent stories on corruption in the news in South Africa. President Jacob Zuma has come under fire for spending nearly $30 million on security improvements to his private residence. In 2011-2012, the auditor general found that half of government contracts in the Free State, a province in South Africa, had been awarded to politicians and their families.
David Lewis, the executive director of Corruption Watch
, a non-profit organization launched in South Africa in 2012, said there is a lack of oversight.
"There is plenty of vulnerability in the system for those who would abuse it, to take advantage of it. And it’s one of the things we are beginning to recognize which I think makes combating corruption so difficult is that around every public sector resource there are sort of interests clustered who are living off them… sometimes living quite, relatively speaking, quite elaborately off them," he said. "So these are difficult to tackle."
The Transparency International survey spoke with 1,000 people in South Africa, asking respondents to rate each institution, in which perceived corruption was based on a scale of 1-5. One is the least corrupt, five is the most.
Police got the highest corruption score, 4.4. South Africans gave a rating of 4.2 to political parties, 4.0 to the legislature and 4.1 for public officials/civil servants.
Corruption Watch said those results are similar to its research which shows the police and education sectors are the most corrupt. Lewis says it is not surprising since these two entities have the most direct contact with the public.
"I guess the sort of classic definition of corruption is that it’s an abuse of public resources and public power for private gain, and I guess the police just have more public power than the average sort of public official has so a greater ability to abuse that. Our focus on education has been on schools particularly," explained Lewis. "And again I think these are institutions in communities, often in poor communities where there is very poor oversight. Each school is kind of like a small business - it has a budget of some size, it has resources of some size."
South Africa is responding to the report with a variety of new initiatives to combat graft.
Lindiwe Sisulu, the public service and administration minister, announced that the government will create a new anti-corruption bureau and her department will be lobbying for more anti-corruption legislation.
The South African Police Service announced it will launch a new anti-corruption wing despite expressing some skepticism about Transparency International’s survey.
"Some of the media reports, well most of them, they put a lot of emphasis on the police who are being corrupted. They forget that there is an equal responsibility on the person that is doing the corrupting," noted Lt. Gen. Solomon Makgale, with the South African Police Service.
But he does acknowledge the police service must clean up its house.
"What is important for us is that corruption is a reality in South Africa, corruption is a reality within the South African Police Service, and the national commissioner has made it very clear that this needs to be dealt with," Makgale said. "Firstly, by forming an anti-corruption unit which will focus exclusively on addressing criminality within the South African Police Service."
For anti-corruption lobbyists like Paul Hoffman, these efforts will only be effective if given some power of enforcement and are insulated from politics.
"They won't persuade me that they are serious about corruption until such time as a body that is specialized, trained, independent, properly resourced, and whose membership has security of tenure of office exists. We do not have a body that has any of those attributes." he said.
The South African Police Service will launch its new anti-corruption unit within the next six months.