South Africa

ANALYSIS

Words are not enough: Fighting corruption requires action, time frames and political will

Words are not enough: Fighting corruption requires action, time frames and political will
Between February 2019 and April 2020 the number of civil servants — unlawfully — doing business with the state increased by almost 50%, says the writer. (Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook)

South Africa crosses and recrosses the same ground when it comes to corruption. Left seemingly untouched are the deep-rooted causes — from broken state institutions, missing governance ethics to political interests trumping political will.

The evidence on State Capture at Eskom as it unfolded before the Zondo Commission this week may well have been titillating, but it’s old. Three years old.

Details were laid bare in Parliament’s Eskom State Capture inquiry in November 2017 – the meetings at then-president Jacob Zuma’s Durban home, the Guptas’ knowledge of Eskom board proceedings and the sidelining, and ultimate removal, of Eskom chief executive Tshediso Matona, a skilled veteran public servant.

Parliament: Lynne Brown ranges between attack and denial in bruising six-hour State Capture interrogation

The parliamentary Eskom State Capture inquiry was a key moment when the national legislature truly lived up to its constitutional oversight responsibility — and pursued this even as the political climate was still firmly rooted behind then-president Jacob Zuma to dismiss State Capture as regime change propaganda.

MPs from across the political divide showed guts — inquiry chairperson ANC MP Zukiswa Rantho and her family were threatened — and sat sometimes until the early hours of the morning.

That inquiry’s recommendations included criminal prosecutions against former public enterprises ministers Lynne Brown and Malusi Gigaba, who were found to be “grossly negligent”.

State Capture report sends ‘grossly negligent’ Gigaba and Brown to Zondo, wants criminal investigations

The inquiry report, with an awkward title of 44 words, alongside thousands of documents, was handed to the Zondo Commission in late 2018.

And then… nothing.

This nothing illustrates the dysfunctionality of institutions — and of governance and statecraft. And why corruption flourishes. It illustrates how officials, civil servants and politicians act with impunity. They know they can get away with it.

At the start of Public Service Month, as September is noted in the government’s calendar, a parliamentary Public Service and Administration briefing was illustrative.

Between February 2019 and April 2020 the number of civil servants — unlawfully — doing business with the state increased by almost 50%, from 1,068 to 1,539.

Most are breaking the law in provincial departments. In February 2019, 798 provincial civil servants unlawfully did business with the state and 270 from national departments. In April 2020, it was 1,111 provincial public servants, and 428 nationally.

The 2014 Public Administration Management Act bans civil servants from doing business with the state — Section 8 makes it a criminal offence punishable by up to five years’ jail — but the legislation allowed two years to sort out their affairs. And by 2016 the Public Service regulations also banned doing business with the state.

And yet the government breaking its own laws continues. The traditional response is talking about some bad apples, and of not allowing those few to cast a shadow over the many. But institutional cultures are defined like this.

MPs were told how in January 2017 letters were set to executive authorities — ministers and MECs — to report back on the state of affairs among their employees. In February 2018 more letters were sent across the national and provincial public administrations.

By September 2018, 22 departments had responded. With more than 40 national departments and 114 provincial departments, that meant the response rate was roughly one in seven.

By June 2020, there had been more follow-ups by Public Service and Administration which, MPs were told, led to responses by 10 of the 44 national departments and three of the nine provinces.

And so in an administration that seems to encourage inertia, and shifting responsibility to, say, the collective, the political bosses become complicit. None of this is new or isolated. It is systemic, and pretty words and optics will not change that.

For more than a decade, the auditor-general has highlighted not only irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure, but also how laws are broken — without consequences.

The consolidated audit reports regularly show how political and administrative leadership snubs accountability — and allows contraventions to go without consequences. Particularly at local government, consecutive audits show flagrant contraventions of financial control systems and of procurement.

And yet Section 217 of the Constitution requires procurement to be a system that’s “fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost effective”.

State-owned entities (SOEs) have been at the heart of State Capture. Of the 14 entities the AG audits — it does not include Eskom, but does SAA — only 11 submitted financial statements for the 2018/19 audit, but only three had no material misstatement and none received a clean outcome.

The worst SOE audits ever: ‘Act now on accountability,’ Auditor-General Makwetu tells government

In old-fashioned English, corruption means rot, decay. And this may best describe South Africa’s body politic. And amid rotten ethics, South Africa’s public administration is too weak to deliver quality services, but quick to make gain from procurement and tenders.

It is this backdrop that made possible the Covid-19 personal protective equipment tender scandal.

Importantly, unlike many of the other instances of public corruption and State Capture — it was denied for several years until the #GuptaLeaks made that spin impossible — this time public outrage that the politically connected enriched themselves galvanised comparatively speedy state responses.

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is looking into about R5.08-billion of questionable PPE tenders, or just under half the R10.4-billion National Treasury recorded.

The auditor-general has probed other Covid-19 related measures, including the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (Ters).

On Wednesday 9 September 2020 Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu and National Treasury Director-General Dondo Mogajane released the “Preventative Control Guides”, to ensure procurement compliance.

Talking of “15 years of persistent disregard of our audit”, in the foreword Makwetu describes the guidelines as “proactive” and “an eloquent expression of the key guards being at their posts at all times”.

“This is relatively cheaper than relying on investigations that will be triggered after money has changed hands in ways that are not credible or transparent. Preventative controls promote transparency, strengthen accountability, and are predictable with known expected outcomes.”

Mogajane also talked of accountability.

“These guides on preventative controls will add to our arsenal of measures to safeguard public money and rid our public sector of the scourge of malfeasance.”

Now all Covid-19 PPE contracts are published on the National Treasury website. That departments across provinces and nationally all used different reporting formats and indicators, which makes it impossible to make direct comparisons, is another matter.

Such fudginess emerges elsewhere, even as the optics are focused on action and progress.

In the investigation and prosecution crackdown of Covid-19 corruption, and presumably also other malfeasance, the so-called “Fusion Centre” is signalled as crucial.

Government, from ministers to president and officials, have emphasised its multi-disciplinary character, bringing together police, the Hawks, the prosecuting authority, SIU, the tax collector and the Financial Intelligence Centre.

But this is not new — far from it.

That “Fusion Centre” effectively is the 2010 Anti-Corruption Task Team (ACTT). The Presidency’s response to criticism that the task team was dysfunctional in January 2015 is telling:

“The ACTT is fully operational and has been strengthened under the leadership of the Anti-Corruption Inter-Ministerial Committee led by the Minister in the Presidency for Planning Monitoring and Evaluation, Mr Jeff Radebe,” said then-presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj in the statement, adding later:

“In June 2014 the Anti-Corruption IMC confirmed and concretised the role of the Anti-Corruption Task Team as the central body mandated to give effect to government anti-corruption agenda…”

The ACTT has regularly appeared before parliamentary committees to brief MPs on anything from the illicit tobacco trade to commercial crime.

Fast-forward to 2019 and a new political landscape. Efforts to solicit cooperation between various criminal justice system agencies through memorandums of understanding fail to ignite.

In the wake of the Covid-19 PPE tender scandal, the ACTT is faded out for a “Fusion Centre”. But that centre effectively is the brick and mortar structure that houses the decade-old ACTT.

The fight against corruption has been deeply politicised in South Africa since the disbanding of the Scorpions shortly after the 2007 Polokwane ANC conference that elected Jacob Zuma as party president, the first important step to the Union Buildings.

Indications now are that this ground will again be traversed. Both in the ANC National Executive Committee and in government, considerations have turned to re-establishing an entity that combines detection, investigation and prosecutions. That’s if the presidential Q&A in Parliament in late August 2020 is anything to go by.

Ramaphosa moots new corruption busters and procurement rules

But as with renaming the ACTT as the Fusion Centre, this would be optics, verbiage and pretty words.

More is required in the fight against corruption, the malfeasance that deprives South Africans of quality services of all sorts, from water to education and passports. 

Political will is essential so the tough, unpopular decisions are taken — for the public good, not partisan interests. Plans are needed with concrete deadlines, defined action and responsibility allocated to individuals, who must know they will have to account for their actions.

Anything short of that, endemic corruption will remain as South Africa continues to traverse and retraverse well-trodden ground. DM

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