“I got work-related stress, I had to go see a therapist because I was really scared. You’ll find yourself taking sleeping pills there, it’s rough.” This is what Thabang (not his real name), told Daily Maverick it was like working as an auditor.
This former auditor who worked at the auditor-general for four years confirmed what Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Auditor-General on Wednesday 4 December, about how stressful and often dangerous the job can be for auditors.
MPs heard of eight incidents where auditors were threatened by senior management in different municipalities.
“In some cases, people say to the auditor, ‘You know your findings will cost us our bonuses.’ People try their luck and offer bribes, but our auditors strictly adhere to the code of conduct and report it to us,” said Makwetu.
A 2019 report from the Institute of Internal Auditors notes: “Over the last number of years, the Institute has received a number of verbal reports from internal auditors claiming that they are being victimised, intimidated, coerced into sweeping findings under the carpet and many said that they live in fear of losing their jobs with some even fearing losing their lives.”
In October 2019 at the Victor Khanye local municipality in Mpumalanga, the municipal manager informed the audit team that they could be kidnapped because of what they find in the supply chain management tenders.
In the same month, an audit team in Mpumalanga received “unreasonable questions” from municipal employees that could have compromised their safety.
“Even when people ask ‘what route do you take when you go home?’, in these volatile times it makes them [auditors] feel unsafe,” said Alice Muller, acting national audit leader at the AGSA.
According to Thabang, it was common for municipal employees to threaten legal action against findings he had issued as a way to intimidate auditors.
“I’ve had municipal employees tell me that they’ll be taking my findings to their attorneys. Another thing is when the auditee contests the audit finding, but a lot of the times there is no basis for contesting the finding, they just did it to frustrate me from completing my work,” Thabang told Daily Maverick.
In October 2019, undesirable statements were made by a municipal employee in Qumbu in the Eastern Cape, to the AGSA audit manager on the findings issued. In KZN, a municipal employee made xenophobic comments to someone in the audit team.
“I’ve also been verbally abused. When I was in Mossel Bay in 2018 I had the municipal management question my competence and then they made racist comments about my competence,” said Thabang.
He was advised by a senior manager to report the matter of racist comments to the Human Rights Commission, but he says he opted not to.
“I was already exhausted from that audit so I didn’t really want to go that route,” said Thabang.
Makwetu told the committee that when auditors reported feeling unsafe, “the primary response is not to get into long-winded arguments, we need to take steps to remove our staff from that unsafe situation”.
Makwetu said that before the audit team could return to the municipality to complete their work, a risk assessment had to be done first. “If it isn’t safe for them [auditors] to go back, then we do it from our premises.”
DA MP Jan de Villiers and ANC MP Sharome van Schalkwyk asked whether any incidents had been reported to the police and how useful the police were in assisting them.
Muller told committee members that in most incidents criminal cases were not opened.
“When someone says you’re compromising their bonuses, there isn’t a real crime that’s been committed. But we have engaged with the national and provincial police commissioners. We’ve asked our auditing teams to engage with the local station commanders so that they [the station commanders] know that they [the auditors] are there,” said Muller.
Muller confirmed that a bribery case had been opened in KwaZulu-Natal.
Thabang acknowledges that the office of the auditor-general tries to support auditors as best as it can and even offers therapy for traumatised staff members. But the countless encounters of threats, indirect and direct, affected his mental health and he had to see a therapist.
De Villiers released a statement condemning the intimidation that auditors face: “The AG’s work must continue, the truth must be brought to light in order to ensure that any person who has been implicated in wrongdoing is exposed and held to account,” he said.
Makwetu suggested to the committee that perhaps it would be best if they called municipal employees and asked them to account for their actions and attempts to prevent auditors from carrying out their work efficiently. DM