South Africa

South Africa

Corruption Watch SA: Erosion of trust, in numbers

Corruption Watch SA: Erosion of trust, in numbers

In its newest report, Corruption Watch, a public advocacy NGO, has painted a picture of the endemic corruption in South Africa and it is not a particularly pretty one. Taken together with the most recent Auditor General’s annual report, the description of South Africa’s moral landscape is troubling. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

Corruption should always be a troubling word. It conjures up images of shadowy guys in trench coats meeting in a dark parking garage as one hands the other a brown envelope filled with cash – as ample thanks for a favour already rendered, or, perhaps, in anticipation of one to be provided shortly. Often, too, it is the gradual change in the lifestyle of middling bureaucrats or business figures as they exchange that typical family sedan for a metallic blue, high-powered sports car; they begin to take rather more expensive vacations to hip hotspots, and they never seem to be stressed by the cash flow problems that trouble the rest of us.

Virtually everybody in South Africa has an opinion on corruption (just as they also do on race, crime, and Number One’s firepool). Probably most of those same people also believe they can speak of a personal experience – or perhaps many such depressing experiences – that they have had with the various forms of corruption in the course of their lives. Thinking about it, this writer realises he first really encountered corruption in the army almost half a century ago.

As a young infantry trainee during the Vietnam War, like hundreds of thousands of others, the writer was marched off to endure hours of rifle practice on a firing range so he could successfully qualify to move along to other training or regular military duty. Rifle practice actually involved three interrelated people. There was the trainee who was actually shooting a rifle, the scorekeeper, and then a man in the trench under the target who would point out where the bullet had actually gone, using a long stick so that each shot could be recorded. The man who would go into the trench was a trainee who was several weeks further along than the shooter. He gave the trainee his ammunition box with the correct number of rounds to be fired and a fresh score card that was given the scorekeeper. The scorekeeper was in a group a couple of weeks behind in training than the trainee firing the rifle.

At the end of the qualifying round to confirm the success of a trainee’s rifle range training – the ammo box went back to the trench man with the empty bullet magazines and a filled-in scorecard. And the box also had twenty to fifty dollars folded neatly into one of the ammo magazines. (And this was at a time when a trainee earned $87.50 per month. Such a payment on the side, therefore, came at a considerable cost to the payee.)

The point, of course, was that each class of trainees paid off someone to pad their final test score upward to ensure they would not have to repeat all that live fire training and thus slow down the processing of all those recruits and draftees, the military’s “cannon fodder”. As a result, no trainee, no matter how doff he was with a rifle, would be held back for further training. As a life or death example of the destructive power of corruption, it seems to the writer this one would be a hard one to beat.

With no verbal communication whatsoever, an entire system of corruption had grown up, taken root, and was being passed along from one training cohort to the next. It kept everything nicely greased, but it also generated a conveyor belt of riflemen who may not have had any skill with a rifle. In effect, the whole system ran on an endless series of backhanders. It cheapened the real result, and simultaneously ensured everyone was ensnared in the system. As an aside, it may have ensured the US fielded an army incapable of using its weapons.

And Corruption Watch’s new report, released on 6 February reflects something of the same concerns about South Africa’s society. As the organisation’s executive director, David Lewis said in his introduction to his group’s report, “The direct economic cost of corruption is huge and the impact of this behaviour is primarily felt by the poor. At the same time, corruption erodes trust in public and private sector institutions and leadership.”

The report goes on to say of a careful survey of the thousands of complaints it has logged over the past two years, “59% of our survey participants reported incidents of potential corruption to us because they felt that Corruption Watch was in a position to take action to address these. 48% of respondents thought that reporting corruption concerns was the right thing to do, which was up 16% from 2012 data. 28% were motivated to report incidents of concern to us because they wanted the perpetrators to be brought to book (by authorities).” Corruption Watch is one of the newest public advocacy NGO watchdogs whose mandate calls for it to receive, track and investigate the complaints sent to it by South Africa’s citizens.

The report offers some particularly sobering comparative statistics as well. In Transparency International’s corruption perception index, South Africa now is tied with Sao Tome and Principe for 72nd place and dozens of places below other African nations like Botswana, Cape Verde, the Seychelles, Rwanda and Mauritius – and even our neighbours Lesotho and Namibia. On the other hand, according to Transparency International’s data, South Africa is seen to be less corrupt than BRICS partners, India, China and Russia – and tied with Brazil. Troublingly, however, it is seen as far behind all but five of the G20 nations.

Since its inception in 2012, Corruption Watch has been trying to build a national sense that reporting corruption is something important for all citizens, rather than the sole preserve of specialised legal structures or senior officials. Corruption Watch notes that since its establishment, “in January 2012 we have received over 5,000 reports from the public. These reports are critical, enabling us to uncover and expose corruption and those who hold our nation to ransom. Our team of journalists, investigators, lawyers, researchers, data specialists and administrative staff and social justice activists are by nature, corruption fighters — and we are being joined by thousands more everyday.”

In statistical terms, Corruption Watch says 38% of all the reports of corruption it has received of activities such as incorrect or crooked tender processes, a lack of due diligence in deal making, and bribery and misuse of funding have come from Gauteng, with the Free State (14%), Kwa Zulu Natal and the Eastern Cape (13% both) clocking in behind it. The lowest number of corruption incidences reported came from the Northern Cape – at 1%. These numbers represent reports rather than actual amounts of corruption. It may well be that the culture of whistleblowing is so underdeveloped in some parts of the country that virtually no one is prepared to do it out of fear or a lack of familiarity with the concept.

Looking at corruption in terms of the various layers of government, nearly half of all reports were about goings-on at the provincial government level. 18% were at the local level, 16% at the national level, 3% were at state owned enterprises, and the remainder were at all other levels such as municipally owned entities, NGOs, charities, and unions. While it is not specifically noted in Corruption Watch’s report, it data could profitably be read in tandem with the annual reports and related documents generated by the nation’s Auditor-General. His most recent report, released late last year, was a report that listed in stunning and astonishing detail the waste, fraud and mismanagement at all levels of government – and the funds gone astray as a result. These sums may not be corruption in the more limited definition of the term, but they just as surely represent an impressive squandering of state resources that could have been put to much more appropriate and effective use.

Or, as Sipho Hlongwane, writing in Business Day the other day, noted, even though over half of the public bodies examined by the Auditor General managed to avoid qualified audits, “According to Auditor-General Thembekile Makwetu, government entities incurred R2bn in wasteful expenditure, R26.4bn in irregular spending and R2.3bn in unauthorised spending in the 2012-13 financial year. He told Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) that wasteful and irregular spending had increased more than 33%, with little progress in improving results. The home affairs and public works departments were the worst offenders, with the bungling of three tenders and the appointment of companies not approved by the South African Revenue Service to do work.”

As far as Corruption Watch’s report is concerned, fully 38% of all reports the group received concerned practices in the nation’s schools, nearly four times the reports received concerning traffic and licensing corruption. At least in the usual popular view, traffic and licensing issues are the ones that represent the daily corruption most often faced by citizens when they are asked for “cool drink” money by cops at a roadblock or to hand over just a bit of help to secure a passing grade for a driver’s license.

But, at least in terms of corrupt acts reported to Corruption Watch, it has been in the country’s educational institutions where the largest number of complaints has been reported. In its new document, Corruption Watch said, “Reports indicated that principals, School Governing Body (SGB) members and to an extent, teachers, were manipulating and abusing the school system and processes to enrich themselves. Concerns reported ranged from abuse of public funds received for infrastructure maintenance and upgrading to sourcing of learning materials, funding of feeding schemes and more…. Top types of corruption reported in 2013 were financial mismanagement, theft of goods and corruption in procurement.” Or, in plain, simple language, this includes ghost teacher salaries, bid rigging for school supplies and construction work, miscellaneous backhanders for placements in classes, and all the things that draw off funds appropriated for the educational efforts in the country’s schools.

Looking forward to the organisation’s efforts in 2014, Executive Director David Lewis (a man who had earlier made a mark at the Competition Commission) says there is an extraordinary amount of work to be done. “For people who travel the roads and streets of South Africa, traffic policing can mean corruption. For traders, corrupt municipal police may well be your everyday experience. Those who have followed the Nkandla saga, or the doings of Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson or the former minister of communications, Dina Pule, will conclude that with the right political connection you could get away with anything.”

Lewis adds that this year will be particularly important “because of the impending national election. The opposition parties will no doubt want to persuade the electorate that the ruling party and government that it has controlled since 1994 is riddled with corruption. The ruling party will want to persuade the public that it and the government is actively combatting corruption….”

And Lewis concludes, “We do not want the election outcome to be influenced by the power of big money. We want our elected representatives to demonstrate that they are accountable to the electorate. We want our elected representatives to serve the public rather than to see their position as an opportunity for enriching themselves. What is becoming increasingly clear is that many of our most pressing corruption-related problems stem from powerful elected leaders at all levels of government, who in collaboration with wealthy individuals and business interests, consider themselves above the law….”

With challenges and objectives like those, Corruption Watch is going to have one very busy year. In the process it may well earn the approval of the country’s citizenry – and the increasing enmity of some of its most senior officials and politicians. DM

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Photo: David Lewis (Sally Shorkend)


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