At Business Maverick’s Business Against Corruption conference at the end of June, the new National Director of Public Prosecutions, Shamila Batohi, said her budget was “a massive problem” and that she was engaged in a “very strong budget diplomacy” with Finance Minister Tito Mboweni on the topic.
No doubt, almost every other head of government departments is also involved in what is delicately called “budget diplomacy” and would have one or several good arguments to hand about why their budgets should increase.
But it’s worth noting how unusual it is for a member of the civil service to make this kind of plea in a public forum, especially in such explicit terms. It’s the kind of thing frowned upon within the civil service because normally it’s the job of the political head, and also because every civil servant knows that every other civil servant wants their budget to go up. The question is whether Batohi has a legitimate case.
So far, the Treasury has looked askance at Parliament’s requests to increase the National Prosecution Authority’s budget. The 2018/19 budget review mentions the NPA only once, responding to a request from the Justice Portfolio Committee to increase the budget.
Treasury responded by saying, “Due to the constrained fiscal outlook, the scope to provide additional funding is limited. Departments, public entities and constitutional institutions are required to reprioritise funds within their existing baselines to fund any emerging priorities. Should the fiscal outlook improve, future recommendations for additional funding may be considered.”
This was word-for-word the same response it had to other portfolio committee requests.
Neither has the NPA’s budget been crimped more than other departments. The NPA’s budget is around R4-billion, about a quarter of the total justice sector. It’s expected to increase by about 7% a year over the next three years, as opposed to the department as a whole, whose budget is set to increase at a little less than that.
R4-billion for the entire prosecution service with about 4,000 staff, of whom about 2,800 are prosecutors, seems small by comparison to the Budget as a whole of R1.2-trillion. Yet, every division of most government departments could make the same claim.
Turns out there are three main problems here:
First, the NPA has a problem in common with almost all other departments: the salary bill is overwhelming the ability of the department to do its job. Successive increases during the Zuma era of not only salaries but more importantly benefits have devastated the department’s functionality.
In the NPA’s case, budget documents show that the salary bill is now 86% of the total expenditure. The Public Service Commission has made public servants an undertaking that the departments have struggled to implement, and the NPA is no exception.
The result has been civil servants who are paid better but are unable to do their jobs because investigating and prosecuting requires investment. As a result, the number of prosecutors has been dwindling. The total number of prosecutors is down by about 15%, which has increased workloads, and that has inevitably depressed morale.
Second, although the budget is increasing, it’s got some room to catch up. The average growth in the budget of the NPA’s main division, the National Prosecution Service, between 2016 to 2019 was 4%. The other, smaller divisions, the Witness Protection Programme, and the Asset Forfeiture Unit declined. If that doesn’t tell you about national priorities, then nothing will.
And third, the big issue is that the size of the problem has exploded while the size of the department has stayed the same. There are no available figures on how many corruption cases are pending or currently under investigation.
But interestingly, what has been tallied is the cases of corruption within the police itself by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. This, the budget documents tell us, has increased sharply and 511 cases of corruption are being investigated, of which 252 were decision-ready by the end of 2017/18 and handed over to the South African Police Service and the NPA for action.
The word is getting out there. In his State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa did say, “We have asked the National Director of Public Prosecutions to develop a plan to significantly increase the capacity and effectiveness of the NPA, including to ensure effective asset forfeiture”.
The expectations now are that the Special Investigations Unit Tribunal will fast-track civil claims arising from its investigations, which they think will bring in R14.7-billion.
That would be an astounding achievement. In 2018, the completed asset forfeiture cases amounted to R315-million. But they were scheduled to increase to R2.5-billion by this year.
Batohi said in her speech to the Business Against Corruption conference that by some estimates, corruption had cost the country about R1.4-trillion, which seems like an extreme number. But even if it’s half that, or a quarter that, a budget of R4-billion seems a bit pitiful. BM
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