The enemy within: fighting police corruption in Southern Africa


The 30th African Union summit, held in January in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was themed ‘Winning the fight against corruption: a sustainable path to Africa’s transformation’. It is a tacit acknowledgement of the scale and gravity of the problem of corruption in Africa, and is in line with 2018 being declared as the ‘African anti-corruption year'.

At the summit, words like ‘cancer’ and ‘crime against humanity’ were used to describe corruption; language that highlights the endemic nature of this crime.

Corruption affects almost every aspect of life in Africa, but nowhere is its impact more profound than in the fields of peace, security and development. It is organised, systematic and complex, taking on various shapes and forms as it manifests across the spectrum of society.

Nowhere is the impact of corruption more profound than in the fields of peace, security and development

Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index points to some concerning trends. Despite a number of aggressive anti-corruption campaigns across various African countries, the public’s perception of corruption seems to be increasing – particularly in Southern Africa.

Of the 14 countries surveyed in the region in 2016 and 2017, only four countries (Botswana, Lesotho, Comoros and Tanzania) showed an improvement on the Index. Among these, the most significant improvement was recorded by Tanzania, which was ranked 116/176 in 2016 and 103/180 in 2017. One country, Namibia, did not change its ranking (53/180) – though there is growing concern among experts that corruption is reaching a worrisome level in that country.  

Of the nine countries that experienced a decline, Mozambique and Madagascar saw the most significant drop, from 142/176 in 2016 to 153/180 in 2017, and from 145/176 in 2016 to 155/180 in 2017, respectively. South Africa dropped from 64/176 to 71/180, and Zambia from 87/176 in 2016 to 96/180 in 2017.

Source: Data from Transparency International

It is evident that on the whole, perceptions of corruption in Southern African countries are not improving.

A particularly harmful form of corruption is that involving law enforcement agencies, notably police officers and some individuals within anti-corruption commissions, who use their positions to perpetuate and entrench corruption instead of combatting it.

A study conducted by Afrobarometer across 34 African countries in 2012/2013 found that the police are commonly viewed as the most corrupt institution in Africa. When surveyed with other state officials such as tax officials, members of parliament, judicial officials, cabinet members and other government officials, the majority of the respondents (42%) perceived police officers as the most corrupt institution.

On the whole, perceptions of corruption in Southern Africa are not improving

Although the study showed that the perception of police corruption in Southern Africa was below the continental average, some Southern African countries were ranked among the most corrupt states on the continent.

Corruption takes many shapes and forms, but graft among the very institutions meant to fight the problem is perhaps the most difficult to tackle. It is therefore imperative that anti-corruption campaigns prioritise dealing with corrupt police officers and other law enforcement officials by systematically and rigorously implementing zero-tolerance policies.

Recognising that this is essential for any hope in ‘winning the war against corruption,’ countries are increasingly purging the police of dishonest elements. In South Africa, where police corruption has reached alarming levels, government has also stepped up measures against on dubious officials.

Graft among the very institutions meant to fight the problem is perhaps the most difficult to tackle

According to the Independent Police Investigation Directorate, the number of investigations of police officials accused of various alleged misconducts – including car hijacking and smuggling, bribery, drugs and theft grew from 5 519 in 2015/2016 to 7 014 in 2016/2017. These are encouraging signs.  

Stemming corruption among law enforcement agencies is not just about investigating and prosecuting suspected officials, however, but also about putting in place the measures and structures to address the root causes. Checks and balances are needed within the system, including efficient internal and external oversight. Law enforcement officers must be scrupulously vetted, and given regular training to ensure ethical conduct.  

Martin Ewi, ENACT technical coordinator and regional organised crime observatory coordinator for Southern Africa, ISS

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