Parliament

Ramaphosa moots new corruption busters and procurement rules

By Marianne Merten 28 August 2020
Caption
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: GCIS)

President Cyril Ramaphosa took a firm anti-corruption message to the House on Thursday. He drew a line in the sand, from Covid-19 tender corruption to public servants doing business with the state. But DA interim leader John Steenhuisen quipped that the line was ‘drawn in invisible ink’.

From the podium of the National Assembly, President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed during Thursday’s question session that his administration is looking at establishing a Scorpions-style outfit to join investigating and prosecuting mandates.

“We are gravitating towards [a body] with investigative powers as well as prosecuting powers… what used to be called the Scorpions. We are busy looking at how we are bringing that to life.”

Daily Maverick understands there is a level of frustration in some circles of government over the lack of a coordinated outfit to tackle corruption. Despite the multi-disciplinary Anti-Corruption Task Team (ATCC), established in October 2010, and various agreements, cooperation between law enforcement agencies is at best sporadic.

Already the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) has backed establishing a new multi-disciplinary anti-corruption unit, according to an official statement issued on 4 August:

“The NEC called upon the ANC-led government urgently to establish a permanent multi-disciplinary agency to deal with all cases of white-collar crime, organised crime and corruption.”

On Thursday, EFF leader Julius Malema pointed out that a new Scorpions style unit could not emerge until the 2007 Polokwane ANC conference resolution disbanding the original agency has been overturned.

“We should not be misled,” said the EFF leader, later telling Ramaphosa: “It’s just a lip service you are fighting corruption.”

Ramaphosa made short shrift of that: “The process of structures of government fighting corruption has to be based on functionality. I will not deal with party political concerns.”

But the 2008 disestablishment of the Scorpions is intricately linked to the ANC, and its 2007 Polokwane conference, which elected Jacob Zuma as ANC president in a first step towards his presidency of South Africa. The Scorpions, which fell under the National Director of Public Prosecutions, since 2005 had investigated Zuma’s role in fraud and corruption in the controversial multibillion-rand arms deal. This long-drawn-out legal matter saw Zuma finally go on trial in 2020.

Ramaphosa sidestepped DA interim leader John Steenhuisen’s questions on what action would be taken against ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, and tried to do the same when asked whether he supported former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede’s promotion to the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, despite her facing a corruption trial.

“The matter is being discussed in the structures of the ANC… in a very democratic manner. And leave it to those structures,” Ramaphosa replied on the second ask, admitting the issue had caused widespread disquiet.

The president seemed to be taken aback, at least temporarily, when Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald asked why he said he was putting his party, the ANC first, before the country.

That was not the case, Ramaphosa said: “South Africa comes first because that is the entity that we all swear our allegiance to. I was not sworn in to advance the interest of a party, I was sworn in [in] the interests of South Africa.”

And the president stayed on his anti-corruption message:

“The greatest defence [against] corruption in public procurement is to make the entire process more transparent and open to public scrutiny,” he said.

“We want to put behind us this type of culture where government is meant to overpay for goods and services. I’ve always believed government should never pay a premium. It should always pay the right price… at best at a discount.”

The aim of this procurement reform, the so-called “silver lining” of the Covid-19 tender corruption that has benefited the politically connected, would be to tighten the system so “thieves and thugs” could no longer have easy access. And that included greater transparency.

“In the end, when government is spending money, it is spending people’s money. And the people have an entitlement to know what their money is spent on.”

To date, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has identified as questionable at least R5.08-billion in Covid-linked tenders – just less than half of the R10.4-billion spent.

SIU probes R5.08-bn in questionable Covid-19 tenders, while lists of PPE contracts emerge

Thursday’s presidential Q&A came just a few hours after Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu briefed the House about Wednesday’s Cabinet discussions that took a dim view of corruption, particularly Covid-19 PPE tender corruption.

“Those implicated will be severely punished, and money stolen from the state by unscrupulous companies and individuals must indeed be recovered,” said Mthembu, who agreed when asked whether Covid-19 PPE corruption was tantamount to murder.

“Apart from robbing people from what should be theirs in terms of proper PPE, you also rob them of their monies [in the fiscus] by inflating the costs. When people do not have PPE because monies are stolen and they die because money has been stolen, then the analogy that this is tantamount to murder is correct.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong [with] categorising these thieves as murderers.”

Mthembu’s comments came on the same day Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba renewed his call to make 2020 the year of the orange jumpsuits.

Addressing himself to the president, Makgoba warned against the “corrupt bigwigs” who had joined the ANC not to serve the common good but to enrich themselves, seemingly with impunity.

“Their attitudes are debilitating, life-drenching. At this time in the history of our country, we must draw a line in the sand and say anew: Thus says the Lord, on whom our hope is founded, the hypocrites and the thieves must return the stolen treasures of the poor, and they must be dispatched to jail, where they must wear orange jumpsuits.”

Back in the House, Ramaphosa described civil servants doing business with the government as being conflicted: “It is essentially a conflict of interest that while you work for the state to do business with the state.” 

He then faced questions about ANC leaders doing business with the state.

Ramaphosa said people were incensed about this and it had to be discussed.

“The ANC, which is this big more than one-million-member organisation, will discuss it itself and come to a conclusion on this matter. And we are going to have a fairly robust, detailed discussion. And we will come to finality. That is what I am able to say to and to promise you,” Ramaphosa told MPs.

How all this unfolds at the ANC NEC on Friday remains to be seen. Whichever way it goes in the factional jockeying of the governing party, it will be one of those milestone moments for South Africa. DM

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