Kimi Makwetu: A servant of the public who refused to be silent about malfeasance

By Marianne Merten 22 November 2020

The late Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu. (Photo: GCIS/ Elmond Jiyane)

Parliament on Tuesday continues with its farewell to the late Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu. The decision not to convert the tribute to a motion of condolences was deliberate – for MPs ‘to say what they wanted to tell uTata Makwetu and the Makwetu family’, according to National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise.

National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise told mourners at the funeral of Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu that legislators thought it important to “say fare thee well Makwetu!”

“We had lined up a farewell to [the] AG. We are keeping it as a farewell…  a chance [for MPs] to say what they wanted to tell uTata Makwetu and the Makwetu family”.

In parliamentary tradition, the family will be in the public gallery during such honours. That Tuesday’s tribute is not a condolence motion signals the recognised legacy of Makwetu’s 13 years in the office of the Auditor-General, first as deputy AG, and since 2013 at the helm of this constitutionally established institution to support South Africa’s democracy.

Makwetu died on Wednesday, 11 November of lung cancer, which he had been diagnosed with in June 2018. His term would have come to an end at the end of November 2020. Deputy AG Tsakani Maluleke was approved as his successor, and South Africa’s first woman AG, in a unanimous vote in the National Assembly in late October, and confirmed by the president last week.

Thursday’s private funeral that was live-streamed and dubbed “Kimi’s Law” or “amazinyo ka Makwetu” (“Makwetu’s teeth”) as Modise put it, featured a call for action against corruption to honour Makwetu.

The Public Audit Amendment Act allows the AG to pursue personal cost orders against accounting officers who fail to implement audit recommendations and remedial actions. The law was steered through Parliament after countless successive years of overwhelming inaction by heads of departments and municipalities to fix what the Auditor-General identified as lacking, and just plain wrong.

Speaking at the funeral, friend and businessman Sipho Pityana said “Kimi’s Law” must be put into full force.

“We must mobilise in tribute to Kimi. To ensure the red flags he waved to our society, and in particular to people in power, are taken seriously,” said Pityana, calling for zero tolerance of corruption and supporting anti-corruption campaigns from civil society, faith organisations, business or others.

“We must hold our politicians and public servants to account. Only then will we be able to ensure public funds are spent on the public and not pocketed by thieves.

“My comments are equally directed to those in business who see nothing wrong in paying a bribe here, manipulating a tender there and generally contributing to the erosion of our society through corruption or theft. They are accomplices…”

Yet Makwetu had focused attention not only on symptoms but causes of corruption, said Pityana, adding that the AG’s findings offered clear answers to what must be done to restore good governance and ethical leadership.

Like others, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni acknowledged the dangers this unflinching approach triggered:

“He worked in very dangerous situations, making findings against the rats and mice who steal from the poor, unafraid to expose those who have done wrong to our public finances.”

Similar sentiments emerged at Tuesday’s memorial service in the tribute by South African Institute of Chartered Accountants CEO Freeman Nomvalo.

“Kimi’s reports as AG point to the malfeasance, theft, fraud and blatant corruption. Kimi and his team stood for the truth when it became convenient and safe to align with untruth.”

Chairperson of Parliament’s spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa, said the AG facilitated better oversight – and set an example all in public service must emulate.

“Mr Makwetu’s urgency, agency, resolve and dedication to his work underscored the seriousness of the challenges before us. Wanting to do his fair share, he worked as hard as he did because he knew that the country is in dire straits.”

From Tuesday’s memorial to Thursday’s funeral, a series of friends spoke of Makwetu as tributes came from leading professional accounting and audit associations to Parliament and the government.

Described as a “patriot” and recognised for his integrity, ethical leadership and honesty, he was honoured for his hard work and leading from the front. Most speakers also shared personal anecdotes, including those “dangerous dance moves” and his music playlist. When music blasted from his office on the second floor of the AG HQ, his colleagues learnt to take this as a sign the workweek was over.

The speaker’s comment comes as Parliament is processing the allocation adjustments of the October Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement. A plethora of AG reports are before various parliamentary committees that must complete scrutiny of annual reports by the end of November.

“For us as an institution, Kimi Makwetu was a leader, a teacher, a mentor and a friend, a man who set the line of march for everyone,” said incoming AG Maluleke at Tuesday’s memorial.

“He taught us we have to ensure accountability for the public purse. Perhaps he learnt that on the hard streets of Gugulethu and we are thankful for that lesson.”

Talking about lessons, that’s also something Modise recalled from her stint as North West premier. And as those interactions with Makwetu continued in the parliamentary set-up, Modise finalised a review on the structure of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) she headed then.

“It is this interaction with uTata Makwetu that has led us to say, in fact, Parliament in its entirety since 1994 has struggled to actually exercise its power of the purse.

It’s a reference to Parliament’s powers to amend, or even reject the Budget – the 2009 Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act. To date these have not been exercised.

The speaker’s comment comes as Parliament is processing the allocation adjustments of the October Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement. A plethora of AG reports are before various parliamentary committees that must complete scrutiny of annual reports by the end of November.

This year, pressure was ratcheted up as the finance minister extended the end September deadline to mid-November. Effectively, MPs have two weeks to wrap up their oversight processes.

Modise said Parliament’s relationship with the AG was unique, not only because of “Makwetu’s teeth” – the amended Public Audit Act – but because of an intrinsic partnership to crack the whip on spending public finances. But the Auditor-General’s load would only be lightened when Parliament and the provincial legislators do what they must – holding the executive to account and exercising its powers over the public purse.

“There is immense power found in this office [of the Auditor-General]. There is immense advice and lessons that are dispensed from this office,” said Modise.

“We will not forget the lessons we learnt; we will carry them. We will not forget the man.” DM


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