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Hands off Zondo – the commission is worth every cent

South Africa

OP-ED

Hands off Zondo – the commission is worth every cent

The government, in particular the ruling elite, should stop recycling corrupt politicians and public officials, allowing them to use South Africa as a hamster’s wheel, say the writers.

It is through an open process such as the Zondo Commission that the public has the unadulterated right to listen to how South Africa has been fleeced and are able to judge who has been getting fat at the expense of taxpayers.

According to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, there seems to be a concerted and well-planned effort to nullify the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.

I think I need to be blunt. I perceive that some in society are against the Zondo Commission and would like it dead,” said Justice Mogoeng at the release of the 2018/19 Judiciary Annual Report in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, on Thursday 3 October 2019.

High financial costs will always be part of investigating such sophisticated and grand corruption as State Capture and related large-scale money laundering.

The cost of running the commission is used by those running scared of the rot it will unearth, possibly implicating them or showing how corrupt they are. A reply in Parliament put the financial costs of running the Zondo Commission at above R356-million, payable from the public purse.

Justice Minister Ronald Lamola has indicated that about R244.5-million of the cost was in the 2018/2019 financial year, and R111.5-million was incurred until August 31. Which is more costly to the taxpayer, the prevalence of corruption or its unearthing?

One thing we are sure about is that every South African is suffering and continues to suffer the effects of corruption and maladministration daily, and the cost of the Zondo Commission is a heavy but necessary price to pay if you are a taxpayer.

Perhaps we need to show citizens “State Capture and Public Officials Corruption Cost 101” before dark forces succeed in derailing the Zondo Commission’s work over an argument about costs. We need to make the public understand that some of the people who argue that the Zondo Commission is a waste of taxpayers’ money are self-serving and self-saving. They want us to believe corruption is a victimless crime. These individuals and organisations believe the theft of public resources is their birthright.

Those from the ruling elite and others who prefer to sleep at work in Parliament while theft is rampant would rather have themselves and their close associates secure in comfort while the entire society struggles to make ends meet. They feel at ease when there are no checks and balances from formations such as the Zondo Commission. Some cry to be given their “day in court” yet hide behind matchsticks when the day arrives, and threaten to burn down everyone with them.

Nobody will inform you that every R50 a politician or public service member puts in his/her private purse has a social impact on the taxpayer. They would rather look away when directors and leaders of state-owned enterprises are unduly enriched at the end of the year under the guise of performance bonuses at failing institutions such as SAA, Eskom and Prasa.

When politicians, officials and their families and close friends enriched themselves to the tune of millions in the Limpopo VBS scandal, millions of poor and destitute VBS clients went into forced recession. Ordinary members of the community lost their life savings while the looters brag in social clubs and drinking dens with bottles of cognac and whisky and no care for the child who slept on an empty stomach because of corruption.

It is through an open process like the Zondo Commission that the public has the unadulterated right to listen to how SA has been fleeced and are able to judge who has been getting fat at the expense of taxpayers. Pseudo and fake public interest defenders would want us to accept that the tendency for politically connected players to loot government funds is normal in Africa.

Writing in Daily Maverick this year, Marianne Merten reported that State Capture costs were around R1.5-trillion over the second term of the Jacob Zuma administration and “State Capture has wiped out a third of South Africa’s R4.9-trillion gross domestic product, or effectively annihilated four months of all labour and productivity of all South Africans, from hawkers selling sweets outside schools to boardroom jockeys.”

Let us not forget that according to the Great Bank Heist report, looters siphoned off almost R2-billion from VBS Mutual Bank, and an “amount of R1,894,923,674 was gratuitously received from VBS by some 53 persons of interest, both natural and juristic, over the period 1 March 2015 to 17 June 2018” (Great Heist report, 2018).

Further, let’s not forget that South Africa is continually perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries on Transparency International’s (TI) corruption perception index. State Capture is counted as one of the indices by TI of how corrupt the South African public service is. In fact, the Gupta State Capture has now been ranked by TI as number 15 of the “25 Corruption Scandals that Shook the World”, describing it as a “modern coup” by one family that took control of South Africa – allegedly pocketing about “US$7-billion in government funds, including a US$4.4-billion supply contract with South Africa’s rail and port company”.

Perhaps Duduzane Zuma’s testimony at the Zondo Commission will help us understand the alleged “modern coup” otherwise, and debunk the allegations that the Guptas bribed politicians, suggested appointments of Cabinet ministers, and gave lucrative jobs to Jacob Zuma’s children. The Gupta State Capture is counted alongside the Siemens Scandal, once described by Linda Thomsen, director at the US Securities and Exchange Commission, as having had a pattern of bribery “unprecedented in scale and geographic reach. The corruption involved more than $1.4-billion in bribes to government officials in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas.”

While concerns about the cost of the Zondo Commission seem to suggest a move to freeze it in its tracks, the US, Germany, Italy and Lichtenstein took action against Siemens. In what was the largest monetary penalty at the time for corporate corruption, Siemens ended up paying more than $1.6-billion in fines and penalties, including $800-million to US authorities under America’s Foreign Corruption Practice Act of 1977. How far are we prepared to punish State Capturers and their enablers in South Africa?

So endemic and prevalent is corruption that an individual had the tenacity to offer Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng R600-million, we have been told by the chief justice. Lately, people have even had the audacity to capture the state openly, redolent of Paul Kruger giving his friend Sammy Marks, a Lithuanian, permission to use the National Mint for one day to mint Sammy Marks Tickey coins as mementos for friends and family, Paul Kruger himself and members of his government. You can say that the National Mint was, with permission of the government, that day captured in the same way the Waterkloof air force base was captured by the Guptas with permission of the government and/or its representatives.

The long-term benefits of using the tax purse to stop the haemorrhaging of public funds and resources far outweigh the short-term benefits of allowing corrupt public servants, politicians, private individuals and their businesses to run the economy into the ground. Sustainable, ethical, and good governance is not at the heart of many politicians; some would rather compromise the future of the next generation of South Africans and their development. The illicit financial outflow from the national revenue purse is in part occasioned by those who are supposed to protect it.

While we are still obsessed with the cost of keeping alive the Zondo Commission through the sweat of taxpayers, it must be noted that our government can do better to soften the blow by making sure that we do not lose money elsewhere. The Global Financial Integrity (GFI) Report of November 2018, for example, used the South African Revenue Service (SARS) data to do an in-depth examination of import under-invoicing. The GFI “very conservatively estimated US$37-billion in lost revenues over the last five years of available data represents resources that could have made an immense difference in housing, education, and health services and could have gone far in easing poverty and inequality and accompanying social strains.”

It is shocking that South Africa still lacks the infrastructure to host key operations such as the Zondo Commission, and has to rent offices at a cost of R374,900.61 a month as was divulged by Patricia de Lille with regard to the lease agreement between the government, Redefine Properties and Tiso Blackstar in 2018. According to De Lille, R14.8-million has been paid for the housing of the Zondo Commission. Why don’t we build state facilities that have adequate conference and meeting space for inquiries of this nature?

The South African criminal justice system must start to catch up with the global wave: make corruption expensive and unattractive for perpetrators. Take away every cent they have stolen or received unduly because of their public office; jail them for long periods and make corruption an offence that disqualifies one from running for public office for life – even if the perpetrator received a punishment of a fine or a jail sentence of fewer than two years. Perpetrators, co-perpetrators, enablers, and solicitors of State Capture, including all other forms of corruption of state resources, must also be barred from doing business with the state. The same punishment must be visited upon those who willfully allow themselves or their credentials to be used for fronting to circumvent banishment from the public stream of commerce.

The government, in particular, the ruling elite, should stop recycling corrupt politicians and public officials, allowing them to use South Africa as a hamster’s wheel. The administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa must put its money where its mouth is. In particular, the apparent lassitude in dealing with acts of alleged corruption and the arbitrariness of decisions about whether to act in a case of misconduct must be stopped. No amount of political motivation can ever excuse an act of corruption. Similarly, the inappropriate relationships between law enforcement agencies, politicians, and the media, as revealed at the Zondo Commission must be addressed.

As stated by the Supreme Court of Appeal in the case of State v Shaik and Others (2006 SA 240 [SCA], para 222): “The seriousness of the offence of corruption cannot be overemphasised. It offends against the rule of law and the principles of good governance… Courts must send out an unequivocal message that corruption will not be tolerated and that punishment will be appropriately severe… It is thus not an exaggeration to say that corruption of the kind in question eats away at the very fabric of our society and is the scourge of modern democracies.” DM

Prof Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda Snr is a full professor of law in the Department of Public and Environmental Law at the School of Law Faculty of Management and Law, University of Limpopo.

Dr Benni Khotso Lekubu is a senior lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at the Unisa College of Law.

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