You have to feel for former South African Revenue Service Commissioner Oupa Magashula. He did not commit any crime, receive any inappropriate benefit (as far as we know) or misappropriate government funds, yet the action was swift and decisive to terminate his R4.1 million-a-year job in government. In the sea of iniquity in the state, his transgression is negligible; Magashula’s problem was that he got caught and that his political principal is as strait-laced as they come. Will the action taken by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan set a precedent for dealing with corruption in government? Sadly, not. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
In Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, the ultimate moral hero is Atticus Finch, the valiant lawyer who dares to take on the most impossible of tasks, to defend a black man in a white man’s court in the American Deep South in the 1930s. He is the model of integrity even when it causes him and his family pain and torment, even when he knows he is fighting a losing battle.
Atticus’s warning to his children Scout and Jem that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” becomes the central theme of the book and a metaphor for the persecution of those who are harmless and vulnerable. While the children watch their ageing father swim against the tide of their ultra-conservative, racist town, a dramatic incident when he shoots a rabid dog in their street reveals to them that Atticus is the deadliest shot in the county, which earned him the name One-Shot Finch. They also learn that he would rather not use or be known by this skill but rather by the strength of his argument.
Speaking about corruption in the public service in his Budget Speech in February this year, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan bemoaned the fact that “our solutions, hitherto, have not matched the size and complexity of the challenge”.
“As much as I want, I cannot simply wave a magic wand to make these problems disappear,” Gordhan said. Five months later, it was definitely not a wand he was waving, but instead an axe which he swung to dismiss one of his most senior officials.
On 24 March, the very day City Press exposed that the SA Revenue Service (SARS) commissioner Oupa Magashula had been caught on tape offering a senior position to a woman outside proper employment procedures, Gordhan issued a statement saying he would institute a thorough investigation into the allegations.
The recording of the phone conversation was made by Panganathan “Timmy” Marimuthu, a convicted drug dealer and police informant, who facilitated the discussion between Magashula and the woman, Nosipho Mba. It is alleged that Marimuthu used the recording to blackmail Magashula and also extort money from other businessmen under investigation by SARS.
Gordhan did not need to be prompted to investigate the matter, as is usually the case when corruption scandals are exposed in the media. His reaction was instant, and he appointed retired Constitutional Court judge, Justice Zak Yacoob, and Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane to probe the matter. The scope of the investigation included whether there was any indiscretion by Magashula?and the influence that Marimuthu is alleged to have had over the SARS commissioner.
Three-and-a-half months later, also without prompting, Gordhan issued another statement announcing that the investigation had been completed. The committee submitted its report to the minister on Monday 8 July. Gordhan released the full report to the public by the end of the week.
He announced the key findings that Magashula:
Gordhan said Magashula, after being given a copy of the report, admitted “that his actions constituted failure to promote and maintain a high standard of professionalism and ethical behaviour that is expected of the commissioner of SARS”. Magashula therefore resigned.
But Gordhan didn’t stop there. He said he would be instructing the audit committee of SARS to investigate whether Magashula’s behaviour had breached any of the organisation’s tax and customs processes. He was also appointing a committee to review SARS’ governance and ethical standards, “especially as they pertain to the office of the commissioner”. In addition, he wants the public to review the governance code and recommend improvements.
The reason Gordhan had to take such drastic action was to preserve the integrity of the institution. “The South African Revenue Service is one of the key pillars of our fiscal order, and therefore, our democratic dispensation. It is an institution whose very foundations are built on the trust and credibility that South African taxpayers have in it. It is therefore critical that those to whom the stewardship of this vital fiscal institution is entrusted conduct themselves, during and after working hours, in a manner that ensures that they are above question,” he said.
This swift justice and clean-up is unprecedented in government. It is rare for investigations to be conducted with such speed, for officials to be shown the door and for thorough remedial action to be instituted. It must have pained Gordhan to discharge someone he trusted and worked with closely, and who conducted himself in an exemplary manner up to now. SARS is one of the most efficient government departments, where innovation and service excellence triumph.
Gordhan knew that had there been any kind of cover-up or use of kid gloves in this matter, his stance on anti-corruption would have been undermined. He must have also hoped that this would become the norm for dealing with allegations of impropriety in the senior echelons in government.
But Gordhan himself knows that the government system is infested. He said in 2013 Budget Speech that there were “too many people who have a stake in keeping the system the way it is”. He also spoke about measures to prevent the manipulation of “politically exposed persons” – public representatives and senior officials – and announced that he asked the Finance Intelligence Centre to explore how to bring South Africa into line with international anti-corruption and anti-money laundering standards in this regard.
What this incident will do is drive those who manipulate the state further underground and make sure they cover their tracks. “Politically exposed persons” are everywhere to be found and as the rot in the state shows, are easily manipulated by those who see government as a feeding trough. They see Magashula as someone less sophisticated than themselves, who was silly to get caught and then fall on his sword, giving up such a powerful position.
They hold as their role models those who are able to beat the system, and who if they through some means get caught, are able to drag the matter out and hold onto their positions by claiming innocence until guilt is established. It is why the public service is held hostage by countless senior officials on suspension on full pay, members of Cabinet in the pockets of powerful business people and the sustained manipulation of tender procedures.
It is this situation which caused Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi to warn that South Africa was “headed for a predator state where a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas are increasingly using the state to get rich”.
Sadly, even though Gordhan may have acted impeccably in dealing with the Magashula scandal, he himself cannot confront the predators when his Cabinet colleagues are involved. He has recoiled from pronouncing on the manipulation of the state for the renovation of President Jacob Zuma’s private home at Nkandla, even though there is clear flouting of procedures and abuse of public funds. He has instead repeatedly deferred the matter until the release of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s investigation report.
While Gordhan took the extraordinary step of releasing the full report on the Magashula investigation, his Public Works counterpart Thulas Nxesi has taken the extraordinary step of classifying the government report into the upgrade of the president’s Nkandla residence. Gordhan must know that this is ludicrous and a clear attempt at a cover-up. But he cannot speak out because it involves his boss and his colleague. And cannot really resign in a huff as it would cause turbulence in the market.
So while Gordhan might have been like One-Shot Finch in dealing with one transgressor decisively, the rabid dogs and hyenas have free run of the state. The mockingbirds, those whose lives are dependent on the state, are being killed by service delivery failures, inefficiency and abuse of resources.
Atticus Finch was prepared to stand by his principles and maintain his integrity even when it made him unpopular and caused distress and danger for his family. Gordhan is just a person who knows how many mockingbirds are dead and dying. DM
Photo: Pravin Gordhan (Reuters)
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