The United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and non-governmental entities like Transparency International converge upon a set of shared tenets and best practices regarding how to eradicate corruption globally. This commonality in perspective underpins what might be termed an international anti-corruption consensus (Gephart, 2009, p. 8; Kuldova et al., 2024). Sampson (2010, p. 262) articulates this notion further, observing that this consensus projects itself globally as an extensive array of policies, regulatory measures, conventions, training modules, and programmes dedicated to enhancing integrity and ameliorating public governance.

Regrettably, corruption persists as a potent scourge worldwide, casting a shadow of doubt over the efficacy of the international anti-corruption consensus (Gutterman & Lohaus, 2018). Numerous scholars and policy experts concur that the strategies and technologies of international anti-corruption consensus disproportionately depend on a principal-agent theoretical framework that misrepresents the complexity of corruption (Persson et al., 2010, 2013) and neglects the nuanced local realities that are crucial for the successful implementation of anti-corruption measures (Jackson, 2020; Khan et al., 2019). In this paper, the aforementioned theoretical postulations are termed “the orthodoxy.”

Through a critical interpretive synthesis (CIS) of studies published between 1995 and 2022 on South Africa’s anti-corruption efforts, this paper elucidates how anti-corruption researchers appear confined within the orthodoxy in their attempt to unravel why the country’s anti-corruption efforts have yielded minimal results. Subsequently, this paper draws on socio-legal theories and critical corruption scholarships to present a nuanced understanding of the country’s failing anti-corruption and posit innovative approaches that can enhance our comprehension of corruption and anti-corruption in general.

This paper is structured as follows. The subsequent section provides a background on (anti) corruption in South Africa. Section three delves into the theoretical underpinnings that guide this study. Section four articulates how the Critical Interpretive Synthesis (CIS) method was employed in the study, and the subsequent section—section five—presents the study’s findings on why South Africa’s anti-corruption regime is failing. These findings are assembled under three interrelated thematic corpora from an interpretive synthesis of the eligible literature. Section six incorporates key arguments from the thematic corpora to illuminate their overall contribution to understanding the country’s failing anti-corruption, thereby suggesting how the corpora appear confined within the orthodoxy. Subsequently, in this section, the paper attempts a more nuanced understanding of the country’s ongoing failure to combat corruption. Lastly, the final section (section seven) proffers a summary of primary findings and their implications, supplemented by research recommendations for future studies.

Anti-corruption in South Africa: a compelling case

South Africa’s violent history, apartheid, and white supremacy are crucial to understanding the country’s anti-corruption challenges. The apartheid regime was inherently corrupt. According to Lodge (1998), the National Party, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, promoted transactive corruption by favoring white civil servants to foster the socio-economic fortunes of the white minority. Although this system was driven by the goals of Afrikaner Nationalism rather than individual enrichment (Seegers, 1993), it paved the way for a corrupt regime by the 1980s, especially at the homeland government level (Bauer, 2000; Lodge, 1998). The impending end of white rule led to a rush to exploit and plunder state resources (Hyslop, 2005; Van Vuuren, 2006). As one official described, many felt they were missing out if they did not engage in corruption (Bauer, 1999, p. 78). Consequently, lack of accountability, kickbacks, favoritism, cronyism, and bribery became common in various state departments (Bauer, 1999; Hyslop, 2005; Lodge, 1998).

Despite democratic reforms and increased scrutiny, corruption remained pervasive across various sectors due to pre-existing structural weaknesses and ingrained habits (Lodge, 2001). Integrating former homeland administrations into new local governments and the infusion of political solidarity among the new ruling elite and its supporters perpetuated patrimonial habits, noticeably intensifying corruption in provincial and local governments (Lodge, 2001). Moreover, various new stimulants for corrupt behaviour, such as the shortages of skilled staffing in financial control systems and the expansion of citizen entitlements to public resources, arose (Camerer, 2009; Lodge, 1998; Van Vuuren, 2006). The systemic and structural weaknesses of the new state, coupled with the emergence of a new economic elite, culminated in creating an environment in which corruption flourished (Hyslop, 2005; Lodge, 1998).

The extent to which the country’s violent and racialized histories shape its current anti-corruption legislative framework is unclear. Today, South Africa is a devoted signatory to several anti-corruption conventions, such as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) and the African Union Convention, to mention a few (Langendorf, 2015, p. 57). It is essential to highlight, however, that before the ratification of the UNCAC, South Africa did not have legislation explicitly targeting corruption. Hence, corruption was fought through a general National Crime Prevention Strategy.

Meanwhile, the country has implemented several anti-corruption interventions over the last two decades. Nevertheless, these interventions have yielded minimal results (Budhram & Geldenhuys, 2018; Gray, 2021). The recent misappropriation of the Covid-19 relief fund, evidence of tender irregularities and scandals at the Ministry of Health, and the killing of a whistleblower in the Gauteng Health Department suggest that corruption is still endemic in the country (Patel & Govindasamy, 2021).

South Africa is distinct in many ways but shares some significant commonalities with other sub-Saharan countries. The country’s multi-racial demography, settler colonial historical legacy, relatively strong constitutionalism, multi-party liberal democracy, and economic development over the last two decades set it free from the trappings of the stereotypical African context where bad governance and the lack of the rule of law are used to explain away failing anti-corruption efforts. Aside from its strong constitutionalism and the rule of law, South Africa had the best anti-corruption legislation on the African continent, having significantly implemented the UNCAC provisions and receiving a “Very Good” rating in the integrity index (Integrity, 2008). Hence, South Africa’s failing anti-corruption regime represents a compelling analytical case for understanding the intricacies of the international anti-corruption consensus.

Theoretical perspectives on [anti]-corruption

Combatting corruption comprises three interdependent efforts: understanding corruption, designing counteractive strategies, and establishing anti-corruption institutions to enforce and implement the strategies. Developing a far-reaching theoretical characterization of corruption has perhaps been the most challenging among these interdependent efforts.

The orthodoxy and its critique

Rose-Ackerman’s (1997, 2008) conceptualization of corruption as the “misuse of public office for private gain” and variants of it (see, for example, Nye, 1967; Transparency International, 2022; World Bank, 1997) has resounded well with academics, policymakers, and shaped international anti-corruption practice for decades (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2013). In this view, corruption occurs when the authority of a public official is exercised in a manner that violates the public trust and contravenes its anticipated purpose of pursuing the public’s collective interest (Ganahl, 2014; Rose-Ackerman, 2008). According to Tanzi (1998), the public-private divide stresses corruption among public officials and shadows corrupt practices in the private sector or private-private corruption. Nevertheless, the Transparency International variant of the definition seems to offset this critique. By conceptualizing corruption as the abuse of ‘entrusted power’ for private gain, the dichotomy remains. However, the description encompasses public and private officials (Transparency International, 2022).

Critical corruption scholars argue that this conceptualisation frames corruption within a rational-legal bureaucratic system marked by structured hierarchy and distinct roles within the public sector aimed at functioning on codified, logical, and societal rules. In contrast, the private sphere is shaped by familial obligations, emotions, beliefs, and customs. Moreover, it views corruption as dysfunctional, ethically reprehensible, transactional, and definitively harmful (Gutterman & Lohaus, 2018). However, this perspective is inherently Western and may not align with non-Western societies, where the boundary between public and private realms is more fluid, with private aspects like family obligations and spirituality influencing the public sphere (Zaloznaya, 2013). Thus, cloaked as universal, this perspective is reductive and imposes Western notions of corruption on variable local experiences and cultural understandings (Zaloznaya, 2013).

Furthermore, this conceptualisation primarily construes corruption as motivated by an individual’s cost-and-benefit calculus or, as Zaloznaya (2013, p. 711) rehearses March and Olsen (1994), a form of rationality that reflects the logics of consequence whereby people break legal and ethical codes for the sake of material benefits and power. Thus, individuals’ self-seeking instrumental calculus amidst entrusted power creates corruption opportunities. Also known as the principal-agent theory, this perspective views corruption as occurring in a dualistic relation where the official (agent with entrusted power) has more information and discretional power in a specific situation and uses this advantage for their gain, even when it goes against the interests of the public (principal) (Rose-Ackerman, 2008; Tanzi, 1998). Within this perspective, corruption persists amidst principals’ poor supervision, monitoring, and sanctioning of officials (Jackson, 2020).

Anti-corruption reforms, especially those promoted by the international anti-corruption consensus through international best practices and conventions, as well as through political pressure from Western governments and aid conditionalities from international organizations such as the World Bank and IMF, are along the lines of this theoretical perspective and, therefore, often promote counteractive measures that seek to primarily enhance monitoring, supervision, transparency, accountability, and the compliance of public agents with bureaucratic norms, procedures, and formal rules (Khan et al., 2019; Kuldova et al., 2024; Sampson, 2005; Zaloznaya, 2013, p. 707).

Meanwhile, several scholars insist that the principal-agent perspective mischaracterises the nature and mechanism of corruption, especially in systemic corrupt contexts. Rothstein (2021) argues that “principals,” as assumed in the principal-agent perspective, barely exist in these contexts because the top politicians and bureaucratic leaders accrue the most from corruption and thus are less incentivised to combat it. In the case of developing countries, Khan et al. (2019, p. 8) add that the perspective erroneously assumes that people are generally rule-abiding; hence, corruption results from occasional violations that can be addressed with improvements in good governance, transparency, and accountability. However, in reality, rule violation is generally more prevalent. As a result of this theoretical mischaracterisation, the implementation of the UNCAC and other international best practices has yielded minimal results, especially in systemic corrupt contexts (Jackson, 2020; Khan et al., 2019; Persson et al., 2010).

Critics of the principal-agent perspective argue that corruption, when systemic, is mainly a collective action problem. The collective-action theory proposes that corrupt practices persist in the contexts of their occurrence because they are generally considered the norm. As a result, people either lose or sometimes gain little from behaving otherwise, especially if it is impossible to trust that others in the same context will follow suit (Bauhr, 2017; Kaufmann et al., 2015; Marquette & Peiffer, 2015a; Mungiu-Pippidi, 2013). In this context, corruption is seen as a manifestation of “free-riding” behaviour (Olson, 1971). This interpretation of corruption considers good governance, rule of law, transparency, and accountability as public goods that are non-excludable (meaning it is impossible to prevent people from benefiting) and non-rivalrous (one person’s use does not diminish availability for others) (Marquette & Peiffer, 2015b, p. 3; Rothstein, 2011). As a result, even individuals who do not actively contribute to producing good governance, accountability, and transparency can still reap the benefits, becoming what is known as “free riders.” Hence, those who engage in corruption do so out of self-interest, knowing their participation will not lead to losing their beneficial status (Marquette & Peiffer, 2015b, p. 6). Furthermore, free riders also perceive their contribution to the production of good governance as insignificant, with the expectation that others will also free-ride on their efforts.

The collective-action perspective emphasizes that corruption is a collective rather than an individual issue (Marquette & Peiffer, 2015a). It implies that effective anti-corruption initiatives must build mutual trust in producing good governance, transparency, and accountability. Nevertheless, both principal-agent and collective action theories postulate that individuals are motivated by self-interest; therefore, increasing surveillance and implementing punitive measures can enhance accountability and curb corruption (Marquette & Peiffer, 2015b, p. 6).

Socio-legal perspectives

According to Krygier (1990), law is a tool the state uses to translate its wishes into action and maintain social order. However, several socio-legal scholarships have critiqued this instrumental view, which construes law as external to society. These scholarships demonstrate that law is constitutive or integral to society (Halliday & Morgan, 2013; Sarat & Kearns, 2009; Silbey, 2005), thus emphasizing the importance of individuals’ understanding and interpretation of the law (Halliday & Morgan, 2013) which shape their everyday behavior (Hertogh, 2004).

Informed by this constitutive perspective, recent socio-legal studies on anti-corruption have presented more nuanced explanations for the limited success of anti-corruption efforts, particularly in non-Western countries. For example, these studies highlight the importance of legal pluralism in understanding why anti-corruption efforts fail (Bierschenk, 2008; Urinboyev & Svensson, 2018). Legal pluralism refers to the coexistence and clash of multiple sets of rules or ‘legal orders’ that interrelate with and influence people’s social behaviour. These legal orders encompass various forms of law, including national/state law, customary rules, religious decrees, moral codes, and practical norms (Griffiths, 2003; Merry, 1988). The concept of legal pluralism recognizes that state law is just one of many legal orders within society. Especially in non-Western societies, legal anthropology studies have demonstrated the existence of non-state normative systems or “semi-autonomous fields,” as Sally Moore calls them, that possess defined boundaries and internal mechanisms, including extra-legal activities that challenge externally directed behavioural changes that contradict the field’s normative order (Moore, 1972, p. 720). Members of semi-autonomous fields feel a moral obligation to conform to the internal rules and moral codes because their membership is contingent upon their conformity to internal norms rather than external expectations (Overman et al., 2014). Consequently, this poses crucial challenges to legal and administrative reforms that contravene the internal norms of semi-autonomous fields.

The legal pluralism perspective ties in with legal consciousness studies investigating the taken-for-granted worldviews and assumptions about law and legality that shape people’s everyday behavior (Halliday & Morgan, 2013, p. 2). Legality in the legal consciousness approach signifies the ‘meaning, sources of authority, and cultural practices commonly recognised as legal, regardless of who employs them or for what ends’ (Ewick & Silbey, 1998, p. 22). Holen (2023, p. 22) succinctly defines this notion of legality as an assemblage of normativity, i.e., the state laws, morals, social norms, religious norms, commands, customs, expectations, and etiquette. Legal consciousness scholarships suggest that at the individual level, on the one hand, this intricate assemblage of normativity shapes people’s understanding of legality—what is right or wrong, corrupt or not—in varying situations. On the other hand, at the structural level, this intricate assemblage of normativity could account for why a discrepancy comes to exist between what the law purports to offer and what it achieves in reality— typically called “the gap problem” in socio-legal research (Halliday & Morgan, 2013, p. 3; Silbey, 2005, p. 323).

The legal pluralism and legal consciousness approaches can deepen our understanding of why corruption persists even amid international-standard anti-corruption legislative and institutional frameworks, especially in third-world countries. These socio-legal perspectives provide a critical theoretical toolkit for understanding this discrepancy beyond the orthodoxy. By empirically focusing on everyday social logic, local cultural categories, and norms concerning the law, these perspectives can disentangle the intricacies of legality that shape individual understanding and attitude regarding corruption on the one hand and, on the other hand, how these complexities come to produce the structural ineffectiveness of anti-corruption initiatives.

Systematic review method

According to Tranfield et al. (2003), systematic review methods differ from traditional narrative reviews because they rely on a more transparent and rigorous process of gathering and selecting literature. This study employed the Critical Interpretive Synthesis (CIS) systematic review method. The CIS approach is a novel review method that combines conventional systematic methodology with qualitative analysis techniques from grounded theory and meta-ethnography (Depraetere et al., 2021; Flemming, 2010). This method comprises the following steps: searching the literature, eligibility assessment, data extraction, and interpretive synthesis (Dixon-Woods et al., 2006). In searching for literature, this study followed the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) methodological guidelines (Moher et al., 2009). Thus, a search was conducted on the Web of Science (WoS), Scopus, and Google Scholar databases for studies published between January 1995 and June 2022 via the following search term in the title or abstract:

  1. (i)

    [corruption OR anti-corruption OR anti-corruption]


  2. (ii)

    [South Africa]

The search resulted in 529 records. These comprised 89 papers from Web of Science, 58 from Scorpus, and 382 from Google Scholar. Afterward, duplicates were identified and removed, bringing the total down to 474 records. Then, the titles and abstracts of the 474 records were screened, after which all potentially eligible studies were extracted via the Zotero reference management software for further eligibility assessment. The potential eligible studies comprised only peer-reviewed journal articles, books, or chapters of books published in English within the social sciences from 1995 to 2022. However, to be eligible for the interpretive synthesis, a potential study should have been concerned with, but not limited to, South Africa’s anti-corruption institutions, agencies, strategies, laws, regulations, and policies. Eventually, 58 of the 474 records met the eligibility and quality criteria and were selected for the critical interpretive synthesis (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

PRISMA flow diagram

Subsequently, the lines-of-argument synthesis strategy (LOA) (Noblit et al., 1988) was used to identify and synthesise evidence, key findings, and critical arguments found in the 58 eligible literature into three interrelated scholarly corpora that comprehensively account for South Africa’s failing anti-corruption. It is possible that some relevant studies may have used words synonymous with corruption or anti-corruption and were thus uncaptured by this systematic method’s search strategy. Also, studies that use specific names of places or organisations in South Africa without mentioning “South Africa” in the abstract or title may have been omitted. I conducted a “retrospective reference list checking” of the 58 eligible studies to address these limitations (Gough & Richardson, 2018, p. 125). However, no additional eligible studies were found. Thus, the 58 eligible studies reflect a substantial proportion of research on South Africa’s anti-corruption regime.


This study found an overall increase in peer-reviewed anti-corruption research on South Africa, particularly in the last decade, a period where the country’s corruption woe is reported to have peaked (Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, 2022) and public discourse was marked by a growing discernment of corruption’s pervasiveness in the country (James, 2023). However, most of these studies employed secondary research methods in investigating anti-corruption at the macro or national level. The lack of primary empirical investigation, chiefly ethnographic inquiries of anti-corruption at South Africa’s sub-national or local level, is alarming because understanding local contextualities is crucial to effective anti-corruption design and implementation. Notwithstanding, the synthesis of findings and critical arguments within the 58 eligible anti-corruption studies produced three mutually supporting corpora that comprehensively account for South Africa’s failing anti-corruption. Broadly, the first corpus demonstrates the country’s lack of ethical and dedicated political and bureaucratic leaders. The second corpus appraises South Africa’s anti-corruption regime, i.e., legal and institutional framework. It examines its susceptibility to politicisation and political pressure. Lastly, the third corpus shifts attention to the actor’s anti-corruption perspective. It investigates the intricacies of anti-corruption compliance in South Africa (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Number of eligible studies per year

Corpus one: lack of ethical and dedicated leaders

The eligible literature synthesised under this theme comprise 23 journal articles published within 2001-2021. Only 5 of these are primary research; four at the sub-national level (Majila et al., 2014; Parboteeah et al., 2014; Sundström, 2015, 2019) and one on the national level (Roelofse et al., 2014).

Data Box 1: Review-Data in Corpus One

In 2001, Tom Lodge asserted that “detracting from the government’s proclaimed commitment to fighting corruption are attacks by senior politicians on the work of anti-corruption agencies” (Lodge, 2001, p. 62). Lodge’s assertion still holds. Bruce (2014) observed that political actors attain and maintain control over crucial anti-corruption agencies by controlling their politically appointed top officials.

In Naidoo’s (2013, p. 531) view, “no aspect of South Africa’s anti-corruption efforts have coveted as much political controversy as the country’s specialised institutional responses.” The controversial disbandment of the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO) and verdicts from Hugh Glenister v President of the Republic of South Africa & Others are watershed events that epitomise the country’s challenges with political interference and the politicisation of its anti-corruption regime (Mphendu & Holtzhausen, 2016; Pillay, 2017).

Shortly after its establishment in 2001, the DSO launched a fierce campaign against corruption and organised crimes. Eventually, they gained a reputation for investigating and prosecuting high-profile cases occasionally involving top-ranking members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) (Berning & Montesh, 2012; Naidoo, 2013; Pillay, 2017, p. 6).

Parenthetically, in 2007, the ANC, during its National Congress, resolved that the DSO should be disbanded (Kinnes & Newham, 2012). As a result, the Parliament passed the South African Police Service Amendment Bill to dissolve the DSO and replace it with the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI) (Berning & Montesh, 2012). Whereas the disbanded DSO was under the National Prosecution Authority (NPA), its successor, i.e., the DPCI, was placed under the South African Police Service (SAPS). Ultimately, the DSO’s closure severely compromised the state’s ability to investigate and counter corruption (April & Sebola, 2016; Berning & Montesh, 2012). For example, April and Sebola (2016) demonstrate that under the DPCI, corruption-related arrests and convictions rates declined by 60 per cent and 83 per cent, respectively.

Consequently, the public accused the ANC government of dissolving the DSO to undermine investigations to protect corrupt ANC party officials (Berning & Montesh, 2012; Bruce, 2014; Keightley, 2011; Kinnes & Newham, 2012; Mphendu & Holtzhausen, 2016; Tushnet, 2019). Eventually, the Constitutional Court ruled that the legislation establishing the DPCI was unconstitutional because it failed to secure an adequate degree of independence for the DPCI (Berning & Montesh, 2012; Kinnes & Newham, 2012; Olutola, 2014; Tushnet, 2019). Besides, the DCPI has been plagued with unstable leadership, factionalism, and illegal promotion and appointments (Pillay, 2017).

However, the DSO’s demise was also due to several mistakes during their investigation and prosecution of high-profile cases. For example, they violated the principles of attorney-client privileges and exceeded their jurisdiction by collecting intelligence without a legal basis (Berning & Montesh, 2012). Moreover, Quarcoo (2009) insists that the DSO’s demise became imminent early in its establishment when they made the prosecution of high-profile individuals their primary focus. He claims that the investigation and prosecution of top politicians by anti-corruption agencies like the DSO may suggest that the law reserves no haven for the political elite. However, due to the political ramifications of such endeavours, the agency’s prosecutorial powers invariably are vulnerable to partisan application, or the accusation thereof, both impugning the agency’s legitimacy” (Quarcoo, 2009, p. 33). Quarcoo argues that a country that overemphasises the prosecutorial instead of preventive functions of its anti-corruption agencies risks jeopardising its sustainability, which seems to have been the fate of the DSO.

South Africa’s struggles with political interference and politicisation of anti-corruption are complex. There are no indications, at least in this corpus, that this problem can be circumvented through institutional design due to the rather unfortunate efficacy of collective political actions. One may, therefore, assume that South Africa’s anti-corruption enforcement will improve if its top political leaders become dedicated, willing, and ethical (Lodge, 2001; Mphendu & Holtzhausen, 2016; Okafor, 2009).

However, the corpus cautions that improved political will and dedication must be accompanied by innovative bureaucratic leadership required to design, adjust, and enforce measures (e.g., ethics training) to improve the moral climate of their institutions and reduce corruption (Lekubu & Sibanda, 2021; Mantzaris, 2016; Naidoo, 2012; Parboteeah et al., 2014). In the country’s local governance, for example, April and Sebola (2016) observed that appointing senior officials based on only political connectivity and employment equity is rampant. This absence of meritocracy has ushered many departments under incompetent leaders who do not effectively apply the country’s anti-corruption laws and policies, thereby creating institutional environments that entrench unethical and corrupt practices (Majila et al., 2014; Manyaka & Nkuna, 2014).

In any case, leaders must exemplify their institution’s code of conduct and other professional ethics in their daily behaviour to improve the ethical climate of their institutions (Parboteeah et al., 2014). Sadly, many public sector departments in South Africa are led by unethical leaders who instead exploit loopholes in their systems for personal gain (Naidoo, 2012; Odeku, 2019, p. 11). Bribery and corruption prevail even within the top leadership of the country’s anti-corruption enforcement agencies (Olutola, 2014). In the last decade alone, two successive National Commissioners of the SAPS have been implicated, and one was convicted for corrupt practices (Keightley, 2011; Kinnes & Newham, 2012). In addition, there is evidence of some clerks and judges engaging in bribery (Roelofse et al., 2014; Sundström, 2015) and corrupt senior managers converting anti-corruption incentives into reward schemes for colluding subordinates (Sundström, 2019). Meanwhile, leaders who resist political interference are unceremoniously removed from office (Pillay, 2017).

Corpus two: political susceptibility of anti-corruption regime

The eligible literature synthesised under this theme comprise 25 journal articles published within 2001-2021. Only 6 of these are primary research; three at the sub-national level (Kanjere & Koto, 2021; Majila et al., 2014; Nzo, 2016) and the other half on the national level (Chetty & Pillay, 2017; Montesh & Berning, 2012; Roelofse et al., 2014).

Data Box 2: Review-Data in Corpus Two

South Africa’s anti-corruption legal framework is considered sound because it conforms to international anti-corruption standards (Kurakin & Sukharenko, 2018; Langendorf, 2015, pp. 57–58; Majila et al., 2014; Safara & Odeku, 2021, pp. 209–214). Aside from the existing legal framework, there are recent calls for a “right to freedom from corruption law” (Maseko, 2021, p. 127; Mubangizi, 2020, p. 245; Mubangizi & Sewpersadh, 2017, p. 67). Advocates of this law maintain that it will empower ordinary people to demand transparency and accountability and claim constitutional damages from corrupt public officials. Simultaneously, the legal framework is plagued with voluminous laws and technical formalities, resulting in ambiguities and conflicting provisions (Kanjere & Koto, 2021; Sewpersadh & Mubangizi, 2017, p. 14). Hence, it is unclear how the passing of more laws will improve the country’s fight against corruption.

Besides, for Langendorf (2015), passing anti-corruption laws in South Africa has primarily been mere adherence to the prescripts of international law. Makiva (2021) shows evidence of Langendorf’s claim in her mixed-method comparative study of public procurement corruption in Kenya and South Africa. She found that although the design of institutional architecture adheres to international law and best practices, leaders often deliberately put weak internal controls in place to lubricate corrupt activities. As a result, she concludes that the adherence of these countries’ anti-corruption design to international law and best practices is perhaps primarily to attain legitimacy from the international community (Makiva, 2021).

Analyses of the DSO’s disbandment and the Glenister case suggest that in practice, South Africa’s anti-corruption laws are often either not applied or selectively applied, and its anti-corruption institutions are not sufficiently independent (Langendorf, 2015, pp. 84–87; Sewpersadh & Mubangizi, 2017, p. 14). Nonetheless, it is the primary responsibility of anti-corruption institutions and agencies to enforce and implement the country’s anti-corruption measures. Therefore, if the legal framework is presumably sound amid widespread corruption, one may be inclined to scrutinise the country’s anti-corruption institutional framework.

South Africa’s anti-corruption institutional model relies on rich and varied laws, rules, and regulations, creating about 19 institutions, agencies, and coordinating mechanisms (Pillay, 2017). According to Dassah (2014), the country’s model suffers from every possible weakness of the multi-agency model, such as red-tapism, patronage networking, and rivalry among agencies. In addition, the mandates of the anti-corruption agencies are unclear and overlap, leading some observers to argue that the model lacks proper oversight, coordination, a unified strategic approach, and a leading central agency (Bruce, 2014; Chetty & Pillay, 2017; Faull, 2011; Pillay, 2017). These scholars concur that South Africa should establish an independent and centralised single anti-corruption agency (Majila et al., 2014, p. 236; Montesh & Berning, 2012, p. 135). However, Mphendu and Holtzhausen (2016) maintain that because anti-corruption requires a multi-faceted approach that reinforces all pillars of South Africa’s integrity system, no single institution can eliminate the country’s corruption single-handedly. Instead, improving the coordination between agencies can enhance speedier prosecution and the effectiveness of the anti-corruption architecture (Naidoo, 2013, p. 533).

Subsequently, instead of a single centralised agency, Budhram (2015, p. 53), for example, calls for the formation of a Corruption Intelligence Centre (CIC) that will gather and share crucial information and intelligence needed for other anti-corruption agencies to function effectively. Accordingly, South Africa’s National Development Planning Commission (NDP) refutes claims that fragmentation of anti-corruption efforts is a crucial problem for the country’s fight against corruption (Bruce, 2014; Pillay, 2017). To this end, the commission emphasises the importance of the existing checks and balances in the current multi-agency model. It claims that the country does not have the institutional foundation suitable and adequate for establishing a single-agency model (Bruce, 2014).

Nevertheless, it is discernible within the literature that the most crucial challenge of the country’s multi-agency framework is its susceptibility to political interference and pressure (Bruce, 2014; Dassah, 2014; Imiera, 2020; Keightley, 2011; Lodge, 2001; Majila et al., 2014; Mphendu & Holtzhausen, 2016; Naidoo, 2013; Pillay, 2017; Roelofse et al., 2014). Ostensibly, it is usual for corrupt employees to gain impunity through protection from government officials (Roelofse et al., 2014). For example, Majila et al. (2014) employed a self-administered structured questionnaire to several officials from provincial departments in the Eastern and Northern Cape to examine whether anti-corruption agencies are apolitical and capable of exercising their duties effectively. They found that, in most cases, political power was used to protect the corrupt activities of family members, friends, and political supporters. Similarly, Nzo’s (2016, p. 114) ethnographic study of the political complexities involved in council decision-making in the Northern Cape revealed that political pressure to show loyalty to the ANC political party influenced ANC councillors and other political officeholders to ignore legal recourse against certain persons implicated in financial misconduct. Due to political interference, anti-corruption agencies have become increasingly unmotivated to devote themselves wholly to their duties because the effective and appropriate enforcement of laws and regulations often depends on the will and determination of political actors (Majila et al., 2014).

However, Naidoo (2013) argues that the problem of political interference and pressure has little to do with the current multi-agency approach and more to do with the principal-agent lines of accountability upon which the country’s anti-corruption strategies and institutional framework are designed. After an intra-institutional and inter-institutional analysis of South Africa’s anti-corruption enforcement, Naidoo (2013, p. 523) observes that because the integrity of the country’s approach is shaped by principal-agent accountability, institutional or political actors can compromise or sideline anti-corruption mechanisms through collective action efforts. Therefore, even though the call for a single-agency model is profound in the eligible literature and chiefly inspired by the successes of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), proponents have struggled to demonstrate how this framework will be more resilient to collective action efforts and political pressure (Bruce, 2014; Mphendu & Holtzhausen, 2016; Pillay, 2017).

Corpus three: contextual realities of anti-corruption compliance

The eligible literature synthesised under this theme comprise 11 journal articles published within 2003-2022. Only 3 of these are primary research (Alexander et al., 2022; Bähre, 2005; Gray, 2021)

Data Box 3: Review-Data in Corpus Three

Generally, understanding contextual realities requires primary empirical, often ethnographic, research methods. As shown in the descriptive analysis of the eligible literature, there is a lack of ethnographic enquiries into South Africa’s anti-corruption efforts. This dearth explains why corpus three comprises relatively few studies compared to one and two, which focus on more structural and macro-level intricacies.

Nevertheless, this corpus highlights the complexities of the country’s corruption problem that are crucial to understanding compliance and non-compliance with anti-corruption rules and regulations. In South Africa, corruption can be embedded in loyalties and solidarities forged around a contemporary political morality that rationalises the act as a form of redress and a means to reverse historic racial inequities (Bruce, 2014; Gray, 2021, p. 377; Mubangizi, 2020). According to Bruce (2014, p. 57), these contemporary solidarities and loyalties are “manifestations of political and other solidarities, partly animated by ideas of justice and associated with opposition to apartheid and the apartheid period more generally.” Gray (2021, p. 377) describes this as a sense of entitlement, a feeling of the state’s indebtedness to one who struggled during the apartheid and was deprived because of it.

Even though this political morality may emanate from deeply held beliefs and worldviews concerning the country’s socio-economic realities, such rationalisation could also serve as a neutralisation technique (Bruce, 2014). Due to this prevailing political morality, the prescripts of the Constitution have become just one of several moral points of reference and, hence, not unambiguously adhered to by many (Bruce, 2014, p. 54; Munzhedzi, 2016; Bähre, 2005). Consequently, the implementation of government policies such as the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), ideally aimed at empowering the previously disadvantaged, has instead culminated into fertile avenues with opportunities for individuals and groups with political connections to pursue self-interest (Bruce, 2014, p. 57; Munzhedzi, 2016, p. 1). Furthermore, Bähre’s (2005) anthropological study indicates that this prevailing political morality perpetuates the pervasive culture of silence and impunity surrounding corrupt practices.

Meanwhile, other scholarships underplay the socio-political dimension of this morality to argue that corruption’s pervasiveness is instead indicative of a general moral crisis in South Africa (Mantzaris, 2016; Odeku, 2019; Pitsoe, 2013, p. 751; van Niekerk, 2003, p. 137). To illustrate this, Mantzaris (2016) explains that in South Africa, individual desires for personal gratification have heightened due to the portrayal of lavish lifestyles as a valued norm through commercialism and advertisement. Owing to this status quo, individuals with inadequate training in moral ethics and values cannot restrain themselves when encountering corruption opportunities (Mantzaris, 2016; Odeku, 2019; Pitsoe, 2013, p. 751; van Niekerk, 2003, p. 137). However, Nomtha Gray’s (2021) case study demonstrates that construing compliance/non-compliance as simply a product of individual ethics and morals is perhaps reductionist.

Gray found that “authority and seniority also conferred rectitude,” leading low-level officials to treat irregular instruction as ethics and principles of their ‘principals’ (Gray, 2021, pp. 378, 380). His interviews demonstrate that informal sanctioning and micro-power relations in South Africa’s public procurement departments lead low-level officials to believe that acting contrary to irregular instructions from their superiors amounts to insubordination (Gray, 2021, p. 378). Consequently, officials execute irregular instructions even when they do not understand them. This practice led him to conclude that South Africa’s public procurement practices are reminiscent of apartheid-era levels of compliance that prioritise ‘following orders’ above formal procurement policies (Gray, 2021, p. 369).

Gray’s observation corroborates Brogden and Nijhar’s (1998, p. 104) arguments that corrupt practices in South Africa are sustained through interstices of power masked within permissive formal procedures. To a large extent, Gray (2021) demonstrates the implication of informal norms and micro-power relations on compliance or non-compliance with formal rules and bureaucratic protocols. Alexander et al. (2022) further unravel these intricacies by showing that compliance or non-compliance is also shaped by officials’ perceptions of the applicability, suitability, and relatability of formal rules and bureaucratic protocols to the contextual realities of their daily work.

In a mixed-method study of anti-corruption challenges and opportunities in urban planning, Alexander et al. (2022) found that most public planners believe that their code of conduct is vague and complex and does not correspond to the daily socio-political realities of their work. These socio-political realities include financial and human resource constraints, overlapping administrative and political systems, and competing socio-economic, environmental, and spatial needs. According to Alexander et al. (2022, p. 8), this discrepancy has resulted in the planners’ dependence on individual negotiation and deal-making outside the formal planning process. However, in doing so, they establish the normative validity of their conduct on the “logic of appropriateness” — they conduct themselves in ways they deem appropriate for specific situations (Alexander et al., 2022, p. 8). Therefore, they may not view non-compliance with formal rules and regulations as corruption and vice versa.


South Africa’s anti-corruption appears to be confined within the orthodoxy. Essentially, the corpora suggest that the country’s anti-corruption regime adheres to the principal-agent model, which hinges primarily on oversights, regulations, and enforcing formal regulations and bureaucratic procedures. However, this model is undermined by the absence of ethical ‘principals,’ whose integrity is essential for its success. The corpora indicate that corruption in South Africa is better understood as a collective action problem, wherein corrupt behavior is perceived as “normal” and mutually expected by both principals and agents. This situation results in a lack of incentive from both parties to combat it. Nonetheless, the collective action theory does not offer an exhaustive account for understanding and addressing corruption in South Africa.

Beyond the orthodoxy

The consensus apparent within the corpora concerning the robustness of South Africa’s anti-corruption legislation is fraught with challenges. This consensus is based on South Africa’s adherence to the UNCAC and international best practices. As a result, the corpora exonerate the legislation prematurely, shifting the attention toward law enforcement and policy implementation. However, as posited by Langendorf (2015), South Africa’s corruption problems indicate that it may have followed the UNCAC roadmap but has undoubtedly gotten lost because the map is not the territory. Undoubtedly, the international anti-corruption consensus faces particular difficulties concerning the tension between the universality of the anti-corruption norms and its simultaneous contextualization of specific and local application” (Gephart, 2009, p. 4). Hence, the conformance of South Africa’s anti-corruption regime with the UNCAC and international best practices may inadvertently undermine its sensitivity to the country’s socio-political and legal context.

Furthermore, such adherence to international law may also subjugate the country’s anti-corruption regime to the domination, control, and neo-liberal interests of the Global North or the West. However, this claim cannot be considered a given because universal norms can arise through participatory crafting processes (Fassbender et al., 2012). Besides, Africa is an active innovator and generator of norms within the international legal order (Gathii, 2012; Levitt, 2008).

Nevertheless, scholars of the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) maintain that international law extends a historical pattern that privileges Western interests. These scholars argue that international law has played a complicit role in fostering neo-colonial relationships, perpetuating a relation in which the Global North imposes its social, economic, and political interests on the Global South (Mutua, 2000, p. 31). As Chimni (2022, p. 46) contends, contemporary imperialism has shifted from direct colonization to consensually negotiated shared rules, deploying multi-layered strategies like power, mediation, and revolutionary approaches to achieve harmonization objectives. These also embody a specific vision of how states around the world are supposed to function - namely, according to the ideal of a Western state, and if they deviate from this ideal, they are seen as failed, fragile, or corrupt. Therefore, anti-corruption researchers must be critical of the UNCAC and other international standards as they may primarily disseminate, validate, sustain, and impose Western interests, ideologies, and governance structures on the Global South (Bracking, 2014; Brown & Cloke, 2011; Snyman, 2021).

As part of a global disciplinary effort to manage uncertainties, reduce risks, and establish normalized governance, the international anti-corruption consensus allows its actors to present their involvement as impartial, apolitical, and driven by combating a universal problem. However, their proposed solutions inherently carry political and ideological underpinnings, albeit obscured by layers of technocratic language (Snyman, 2022). Indeed, recent scholarship from critical corruption researchers such as Joaquin Villanueva (2019) and Jose Atiles (2020, 2023a, b; Atiles et al., 2022) serves to illuminate how discourses on corruption operate politically to extend, justify, and contest neo-colonial relationships. Unfortunately, appraisals of South Africa’s anti-corruption regime often lack a critical approach to international law and do not adequately draw on actor perspectives and the rich social contexts within which regulations are enforced.

Nonetheless, the smaller corpus three suggests that the UNCAC norms embedded in the country’s anti-corruption laws and policies do not automatically resonate with some cross-section of people in South Africa who, through informal norms, practices, and local rationalities, contest them. Meanwhile, this nuanced and impactful disparity is yet to garner significant attention within South Africa’s anti-corruption corpora. Nevertheless, the corpora lay an essential empirical and theoretical foundation for future research.

Furthermore, the corpora indicate the prevalence of other normative orders besides the state legal system that shape public attitudes, experiences, and behaviors toward anti-corruption laws and regulations. This phenomenon is exemplified by the incongruent normative stances between the ANC political party and the South African Parliament on the one hand—which resolved to disband the DSO—and the prescripts of state law as manifest in the South African Supreme Court’s adjudication that deemed the disbandment unconstitutional (refer to Corpus two). Although various studies in the reviewed body of work hint at the existence of semi-autonomous social fields, they fail to thoroughly analyze these phenomena through the lens of legal pluralism (see, for example, Alexander et al., 2022; Bähre, 2005; Bruce, 2014; Gray, 2021).

Notwithstanding, empirical evidence supporting the prevalence of semi-autonomous fields in South Africa challenges the idea that anti-corruption measures fail due to widespread rule-breaking. Through the prism of legal pluralism, it becomes evident that adherence to rules is indeed prevalent in the country, albeit often not aligned with formal state legislation and regulations. These findings also corroborate legal consciousness scholarship, which proposes that a complex combination of norms shapes individuals’ understanding of legality. Therefore, prioritizing empirical examination of everyday social logic, local cultural categories, and norms concerning law can assist researchers in unravelling the complexities of legality that shape individuals’ understanding and attitudes towards anti-corruption initiatives. The country’s anti-corruption corpora suggest a significant interconnection between its social, cultural, and legal spheres. However, when examining the role of law in combatting corruption, the corpora predominantly adopt an instrumentalist perspective. Meanwhile, this is not peculiar to anti-corruption research on South Africa. The instrumental perspective dominates anti-corruption studies globally, which, in de Sa e Silva’s view (2022, p. 365), is perhaps due to the field’s orientation to policy.

Thus, rooted in the instrumental view, the failure of South Africa’s anti-corruption regime to significantly reduce corruption is almost entirely attributed to the country’s inability to effectively enforce its sound anti-corruption legislation and institutional framework due to a lack of principled principals, political will, and dedication. Indeed, a perplexing gap remains between the theoretical intentions of the country’s anti-corruption regime (promising accountability, transparency, and institutional autonomy) and the practical realities of endemic impunity and political interference. However, the corpora fail to provide a sufficient explanation of this paradox. The corpora’s limitation suggests the necessity for a critical understanding of the intricate interaction between law and society.

This paper contends that the complex nature of corruption in South Africa calls for a critical reorientation within its anti-corruption scholarship. Scholars must shift from an instrumental perspective to a constitutive understanding of the law’s role in addressing corruption. This shift entails a comprehensive understanding of the interplay between law and society, considering both the “pull” – the constraints imposed by formal law – and the “push” – individuals’ interpretations of the law (Marshall & Barclay, 2003, p. 618). This shift could provide a more nuanced understanding of the intricacies of corruption and contribute to formulating more effective strategies to combat it. Despite their potential value, these socio-legal perspectives have not garnered significant focus from anti-corruption scholarship in South Africa and globally.


South Africa’s anti-corruption corpora spanning the last two decades attribute the country’s failing anti-corruption primarily to the lack of dedicated and proactive leadership to guarantee effective monitoring, supervision, and enforcement of the country’s anti-corruption regime. This paper maintains that although comprehensible, this accumulated scholarship appears to be confined within ‘the orthodoxy’ and does not offer a sufficient understanding of why corruption is still endemic in the country. Subsequently, the paper critically engages with the corpora in a humble attempt to drive it beyond the orthodoxy.

Subsequently, it draws on TWAIL scholarships to critique the corpora’s consensus that South Africa’s anti-corruption legislative and institutional framework is sound primarily because it adheres closely to the UNCAC and international best practices. It argues that although the UNCAC as international law may appear to be apolitical or neutral, it may also embed political and ideological underpinnings that advance the interests of the Global North over the Global South. Subsequently, the close adherence of South Africa’s anti-corruption regime to the UNCAC and other international best practices instead necessitates critical empirical enquiry.

Moreover, the corpora demonstrate that a nexus between formal and informal norms shapes individuals’ worldviews and behavior toward anti-corruption regulations and their perception of legality. This intricacy calls for a nuanced empirical enquiry into the country’s anti-corruption regulations—one that delves into people’s internalized perceptions and ideas of the law that shape their daily conduct. However, scholars of South Africa’s anti-corruption regime have yet to inculcate such a constitutive perspective of law into their inquiries. This paper concludes that adopting a constitutive perspective, using socio-legal approaches like legal pluralism and legal consciousness, can offer a more nuanced understanding of South Africa’s failing anti-corruption regime beyond the ‘orthodoxy.’