OP-ED

Uncovering corruption is the easy part

By Greg Mills 27 February 2019

Indian businessmen Ajay and Atul Gupta speak to the City Press from the New Age Newspaper's offices in Midrand, Johannesburg, South Africa on 4 March 2011. (Photo by Gallo Images/City Press/Muntu Vilakazi)

South Africa’s governance turn under Jacob Zuma coined the term State Capture. But this is nothing new. While the scale might be alarming, this practice of governmental corruption is little more than old fashioned rent-seeking.

South Africa was not first down this path, and in all likelihood, it won’t be the last. It is not of course solely an African problem, though some of the most egregious examples have sadly emanated from the continent, where excess stands out where dearth prevails.

Neither is the ineffectiveness of attempts to bring perpetrators to justice anything new, even though apparently we’ve never been so good at uncovering tales of corruption.

While exposing corruption is a legally critical and sometimes cathartic national exercise, the tricky part is cleaning up the mess afterwards. Nowhere is this truer than in South Africa, where accountability and justice have lagged the steady tempo of serial revelations on State Capture.

The danger is that the public, absent justice, becomes inured to the volume and frequency of such exposés, and simply switches off.

Building strong cases for prosecution takes time but sometimes time alone is not enough. Two years on from the #GuptaLeaks, if anything, progress on this front appears to be headed in the opposite direction, with an arrest warrant for Ajay Gupta scrapped by the National Prosecuting Authority.

This comes despite the wealth of evidence implicating the family in scandals from the R2.1-billion sale of Optimum coal mine to the R54-billion purchase of 1,064 locomotives by Transnet (which included a R16-billion “Gupta premium”). The NPA has also recently dropped the Estina Dairy case concerning the Gupta family and their associates. Whether anyone will be held responsible for syphoning off R250-million – intended for poor black farmers which ended up anywhere but – remains to be seen.

Frustrated progress also characterises the case of Bosasa, the facilities management firm that is estimated to have won more than R12-billion in government contracts since 2003. The recent wave of allegations, mostly from past and present employees of the firm, suggest that corruption was endemic in Bosasa and routinely used to secure and maintain government tenders, as well as to provide political protection.

While the accusations have been shocking in their level of detail and the number of those implicated, the firm, which now goes by the name of African Global Operations, has long had a chequered reputation.

A 2009 Special Investigative Unit (SIU) report first detailed instances of such corruption in the procurement of tenders from the Department of Correctional Services. Yet the company carried on regardless for another decade, accountability be damned. It remains to be seen if it will simply reinvent itself as something else and carry on regardless.

These cases demonstrate how, even once corruption is brought to light, influence is hard to unpick, and for those with access there is usually a way to delay, divert attention, kick the can down the road, or muddy the legal waters to their advantage.

SA is not the only African country to struggle on this score. The Bank of Uganda (BOU) has been trying to recover funds from the former owner and major shareholder of Crane Bank Limited, which was taken over by the BOU in October 2016 as a result of insolvency. Following the takeover, with the help of foreign consultants, the Bank of Uganda identified fraudulent transactions and transfers worth Shs 397-billion, or R1.5-billion.

The findings of their investigation prompted legal action, with the BOU seeking to recover public funds used to keep Crane afloat before it could be sold on. However, a fierce fightback from its former principal shareholder Sudhir Ruparelia has prompted a full parliamentary committee probe into the BOU’s sale of private banks between 1993 and 2016. A case of gamekeepers now being cast as poachers.

When politics outdoes justice, it can breed and feed a culture of impunity, with costly consequences. Pretoria’s decision not to allow the former Mozambican finance minister Manuel Chang to be extradited to the United States, to face charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering relating to a $2-billion fishing and shipping corruption scandal, is a further case in point. On this occasion, Ching, Chong, Chang … and you’re out, it seems.

The ex-minister was arrested on an Interpol warrant issued on behalf of the US government. SA’s international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu blithely said of the decision to instead send him back home, “We believe that is the easiest thing for everybody.”

You can steal and be caught but only tried if we like the courts is the clear message, never mind the cost to the rule of law or future investment. Liberation politics exceeds all of that pesky, secondary stuff. The cost of this is borne by citizens, of course, not by ruling parties.

The lesson to be learnt is simple. Where individuals are more powerful than institutions, and politics trumps legal independence and process, the well-connected can delay justice, almost indefinitely in some cases.

And justice delayed is justice denied. DM

Dr Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation, and is the co-author of the recently-released Democracy Works: Rewiring Politics to Africa’s Advantage (Picador).

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In other news...

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