Maverick Citizen

Southern Africa Roundup #24

Civil society’s brave role in exposing pandemic corruption — and the price it pays

South African religious leaders take part in a silent performance protest in Cape Town against Covid-19 corruption. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

In an earlier article in this series, we highlighted some of the major reported corruption cases across southern Africa. In this week’s edition, we look at the role civil society has played in monitoring and exposing corruption related to Covid-19 in the SADC region, in the hope of igniting processes of accountability.

As reported previously, from the outset the fight against Covid-19 has been characterised by fraud and bribery, particularly associated with procurement of essential medicines and personal protective equipment (PPE). Contracts to distribute items such as masks, gloves and medical visors have been abused by companies allegedly connected with people in power or positions in health departments. 

The corruption is systematic, manifesting itself in partisan distribution of cash grants and food parcels to food-insecure communities, kickbacks for tenders and bribes in law enforcement. 

As a result, existing inequalities have widened, particularly for those who live hand-to-mouth, amid increasing unemployment levels and insufficient social security in countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. 

In the absence of robust oversight and due diligence, the economic cost has also been devastating, resulting in growing systemic socio-economic challenges. 

While this may be one of the most difficult environments for civil society, it is also a critical moment where its work has never been more important. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, civil society has been faced with having to monitor how governments responded and to advocate for effective responses to the pandemic.

Because the international community is preoccupied with the global pandemic, governments have taken the opportunity to get away with theft, thuggery and abuse of power, making it increasingly difficult for civil society organisations (CSOs) to operate freely, including in some cases criminalising its work.

Several studies, including one by the Zambian Governance Foundation (ZGF) and another by Tshikululu Social Investments in SA, have shown the extent to which the majority of CSOs have been negatively affected by Covid-19. The most common challenges are the complete loss of funding, bringing operations to a dramatic end; reduced funding, leading to major operational and structural changes; and the inability to implement programme activities on account of governments’ preventive measures against the pandemic.

Notwithstanding these challenges, CSOs have managed to continue promoting accountability, holding governments accountable and speaking out against corruption in an effort to ensure resources reached their intended targets, and to prevent the loss of colossal sums of money to corruption. 

How civil society fought back

The region’s strongest economy, South Africa, has borne the largest brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, recording 19,164 deaths from a total of 721,770 cases as of 29 October. As would follow, the more the cases, the more the resources mobilised to fight the plague. 

Given the fact that corruption has always been rife in South Africa, Covid-19 simply resulted in the opening of a new front for well-connected individuals to fatten their bank accounts further. According to the Auditor General, almost R500-billion (US$30-billion) of money earmarked for the country’s Covid-19 response has been stolen.

In that light, the C-19 People’s Coalition, a conglomeration of more than 400 CSOs, was set up to ensure that South Africa’s response to Covid-19 is rooted in social justice and democratic principles. The Budget Justice Coalition has also been calling for more efficient use and stricter oversight around the use of the funds. 

Corruption Watch has also been highly active on national and community radio, in the press, writing to the president, and in association with other organisations, calling for action against corruption. They have also been running a Lockdown Life blog, which documents personal experiences of those struggling with the effects of corruption. 

In September, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and other CSOs demonstrated against Covid-19 corruption, chanting “we want to see looters in orange overalls”, and calling for transparency and accountability from the government. 

In their submissions to President Cyril Ramaphosa, the group’s demands included naming and shaming the corrupt and supporting and strengthening honest public servants and whistle-blowers; ensuring that all public representatives and political party executive committee members and their immediate families, as well as civil servants, are not allowed to conduct business with the state; that the law-enforcement agencies investigate, recoup the money and prosecute those involved in Covid-19 corruption from both the public and private sector. 

Like South Africa, Malawi was already battling with corruption before the outbreak of Covid-19. The freshly elected President Lazarus Chakwera says more than $1-billion was stolen through corruption during former president Peter Mutharika’s administration. Covid-19 has been no exception, implicating former first lady Gertrude Mutharika, cabinet ministers and members of Parliament.

In response, CSOs operating under the banner Anti-Corruption Alliance expressed concern over the lack of transparency and accountability on how the pandemic funds were being handled. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) called for the immediate resignation of cabinet ministers and more specifically Minister of Information Mark Botomani and Minister of Health Jappie Mhango for abuse of Covid-19 funds. 

In Zimbabwe, the African Development Bank approved a $13.7-million grant to finance the Covid-19 response in the country while the World Bank granted it $7-million. The European Union released a $75-million package. In July, the United Nations World Food Program (WPF) appealed for an additional $250-million in emergency aid to help more than eight million people that were at risk of starvation even before the pandemic.  

Transparency International has been monitoring how these funds are being used and has expressed concern that although the government received donations for PPE, ventilators and other medical equipment from NGOs and other countries, there has been no transparency or accountability and no information released on the distribution. 

Organisations such as the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD) have initiated civil society-coordinated efforts to track all resources pledged, received and used by the government. According to Janet Zhou, the ZIMCODD executive director, the tool tracks cash and in-kind resources mobilised domestically and internationally. Publishing weekly updates, ZIMCODD’s Tracker provides information about resources directly or indirectly received by the government.  

In Zimbabwe and elsewhere, the media has also played a critical role in demanding transparency and accountability. The major highlight was the bombshell report by investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono that the then Health minister Obadiah Moyo had awarded a $60-million Covid-19 tender to a shell company called Drax International, without going to tender. Drax is allegedly linked to Mnangagwa’s twin sons and his wife.

Civil society at risk: targeted for exposing corruption

The ability to mitigate the devastating impact of Covid-19 graft relies heavily on the ability of civil society to maintain its role and give voice to affected communities. However, closing civic space, constraints on movement, attacks on the media and increasingly authoritarian policies in many countries have made the environment for advocacy and accountability an extremely difficult one to work in. 

Zambia, for instance, was already suffering from the effects of a local currency that was rapidly losing value against major convertible currencies, as well as a debt crisis that shows no signs of abating. This had a negative impact on many CSO budgets, undermining the critical work they do.

In Mozambique, a group of arsonists reportedly broke into the offices of Canal de Moçambique, a leading weekly newspaper with a reputation for exposing corruption. The group poured fuel over office equipment and ignited it with a Molotov cocktail. According to an Amnesty International report, “the attack came four days after the newspaper published an investigative story alleging unethical procurement by politically connected individuals and senior government officials at the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy.” 

Earlier in the year, Canal de Moçambique had reported on an alleged secret deal between government ministries and a gas company that appears to have earned kickbacks for the minister of defence. 

In Zimbabwe, following the arrest and immediate release on bail, and the subsequent sacking of Health Minister Obadiah Moyo for “inappropriate conduct” over the $60-million medicines supply scandal, Zimbabwean authorities immediately targeted anti-corruption whistle-blowers instead of the corrupt elements. 

Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested and spent 45 days in jail for unearthing this high-level scam. His cameras were confiscated and he was banned from using Facebook and his Twitter account and now, using Instagram. Political activists Jacob Ngarivhume, Job Sikhala, Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, who organised mass protests against official corruption and general economic decay were also imprisoned without trial and denied bail for long periods. 

The government of Zimbabwe is also pushing for a new Cyber Security Law that would mandate five years in prison for sharing “false” information online. In a country where journalists like Chin’ono and whistle-blowers have brought corruption to light through social media, Transparency International believes this is an unacceptable deterrent that would stop wrongdoing being brought to light. 

On 27 October, Zimbabwe Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa announced that Zimbabwe’s cabinet wants to bar its citizens from holding “unauthorised” communication and negotiations with hostile governments. The logic behind this is that “such communication or negotiation has a direct or indirect implication on Zimbabwe’s foreign relations and policy”. 

This latest cabinet move may result in amendment of the Criminal Code to legislate and criminalise most of the work that civil society organisations of all stripes do as part of normal advocacy to highlight human rights violations and lobby for other states to hold Zimbabwe accountable under international human rights law. 

In short, civic space is being closed offline and online, and human rights activism as we know it is being criminalised. 

What is the solution?

Nearly 100 civil society organisations from across the world wrote to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in May, urging the IMF to include anti-corruption measures in emergency funding given to governments and to ensure that the funds released are actually used to safeguard public health, save lives and support livelihoods.  

The Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI) Public Finance Response Monitor has developed an important starting point for systematic accountability necessary to break the cycle of impunity for corruption by seeking and publishing 

  • Covid-19 procurement contracts; 
  • names of companies awarded contracts; 
  • beneficial ownership information of companies receiving contracts; and
  • validation of delivery of products and services.

They have also been campaigning for more frequent internal audits; specific Covid-19 external audits; audit findings to be made publicly available; more frequent reporting of Covid-19 expenditure; publishing expenditure reports and specific budget lines for Covid-19 reporting.

In addition, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), has also devised a strategy for supplemental funding to prevent, prepare for and respond to the pandemic in an effort to promote citizen responsive governance amid the Covid-19 crisis. In a paper on Covid-19 and Corruption, USAID sets out “Key Issues and Approaches” to addressing corruption in this context which are focused on systemic and holistic interventions that bolster the ability of countries to detect, prevent, investigate and sanction corruption across the Covid-19 response.

While acknowledging that some of the unprecedented emergency spending against Covid-19 has occurred without adhering to regular procurement procedures, checks and balances, the IMF has since cautioned that as governments “do what it takes” to support people and firms during the global pandemic and economic downturn, they should endeavour to “keep the receipts”.

Conclusion

It may be impossible to quantify how much has been lost to corruption related to Covid-19. For some, the past six months have been a period of sustained, shameless quick wealth accumulation even if it meant over dead bodies, literally. 

The WHO director-general called it akin to “murder”:

“Because if health workers work without PPE, we’re risking their lives. And that also risks the lives of the people they serve. So it’s criminal and it’s murder and it has to stop.”

But while scandals related to Covid-19 have cost health officials in Botswana their jobs and have implicated cabinet ministers in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), among others, the record of accountability is worryingly insignificant. 

Corruption is still a way of life. It is needlessly tolerated across the region. It is rewarding. There is impunity for it. Corruption begets corruption. Impunity breeds impunity. 

Despite all the lip-service, authorities have not created conditions for it to fall. It will therefore remain an issue that will face civil society, despite the fact that in challenging it, civil society also risks its own future. DM/MC

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders and institutions on the human rights situation across the region. 

The weekly roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and Maverick Citizen.

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