Maverick Citizen: Tuesday Editorial

Land of glorious impunity – and how to ensure constitutional accountability for public resources

By Mark Heywood 2 February 2021

The Gauteng Education Department's vast expenditure on sanitising schools is not the only example of wasteful spending by government departments. (Photo by Gallo Images/Luba Lesolle)

The latest scandal concerning the Gauteng Education Department’s R431-million expenditure on ‘deep-cleaning and decontaminating’ schools is symptomatic of a deeper problem: we live in a land of hopeless impunity for maladministration and corruption.

It was the year Covid-19 upended our lives. But 2020 was also characterised by public anger over corruption around the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the massive waste of scarce public funds meant for Covid-19 care. 

Yet, despite the furore surrounding the Gauteng Health Department’s abuse of money, it seems that officials from other departments were undeterred. We now know that the Gauteng Education Department spent vast amounts on “sanitising schools”, using deep cleaning and decontamination services that were not warranted or recommended. This was done with no executive oversight of the levels or suitability of the spending and no apparent trepidation on the part of officials involved. For several months at least they kept ratcheting up the bills like a chronic gambler – until someone pointed out they had spent more than R400-million. 

In another example, the Gauteng Department of e-Government spent R328,457 on “decontaminating” hard copies of documents. 

We don’t know what other irregular expenditures lurk in government books but a cursory look across expenditures registered by other provinces reveals that sanitising and deep cleaning is almost as prevalent as spending on PPE. Unfortunately, despite its pledge of transparency, National Treasury has not updated its dashboard containing figures on provincial Covid-19 expenditure since 2 September 2020. 

This weekend, Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi told the Sunday Times that he has reported the deep-cleaning scandal to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), the Auditor-General and the Hawks for investigation. We applaud this move and will not prejudge the outcome. But we have to say that on the surface this expenditure looks scarily similar to what we saw with PPE.

But it gets worse. The rot is not new to Covid-19. 

Remember, the most plausible motive for Qedani Mahlangu’s closure of the Life Esidimeni hospital in 2016 was that the money “saved” would be redirected to start-up NGOs (many of them unregistered and without the necessary skills). The NGOs Mahlangu picked had no skills or expertise in caring for mental health care users. Similarly, companies that don’t appear to have any expertise in cleaning (I am told that none of the members of the National Contract Cleaners Association was contracted for any of this work).

This way, tenders and contracts for public services became a form of political patronage. In each case ordinary people pay with their lives.

The problem is that each of these incidents reflects a culture, and a deeply entrenched pattern of behaviour, among many politicians and politically connected civil servants that plays fast and loose with public funds – even as the Cabinet and provincial executives plead poverty and implement a merciless austerity programme. 

The consequence of this conduct is evident in the annual reports of the Auditor-General where, each year, tens of billions of rands are reported lost to a combination of irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure. 

This modus operandi should be well known because it has been going on for at least a decade. For this reason elected political leaders, who swear an oath to “obey” the constitution, can’t claim ignorance as their defence to evade responsibility, be they President Cyril Ramaphosa, Premier David Makhura or MECs Bandile Masuku and Lesufi. 

Neither can their heads of department, accounting officers or their small army of advisers.

They should be on guard against abuses that violate the “basic values and principles governing public administration” that are set out succinctly and individually in Section 195 of the Constitution. These should be the nine commandments of every political leader. But instead a self-rewarding habit of blind eye-ism is what we get. 

There are those in government who believe fervently that Masuku – and now Lesufi – are victims of the media. They argue that they are being penalised for taking risks and “wanting to do their jobs properly”; that in the eye of the Covid-19 storm they should be given some slack if they didn’t follow all rules or procedures. 

They argue that political principals (MECs) cannot be expected to keep track of the expenditure of their departments. My response to this argument is: “You are paid to be leaders, public servants, you have to have oversight, you have to be responsible for the monies that go through your department, you have to be calm and level headed when everybody else is panicking. That is leadership.”

However, it seems that with this argument we have gone from one extreme to the other. Until recently the common problem was with political interference by MECs in the day-to-day running of their departments. Now some opt for a complete hands-off approach. Neither is acceptable. There is a middle road. It is the road of what the courts might one day call the “reasonable politician”.

This is an editorial about the high price of impunity and at this point it’s important to point out that the problem lies not only with public officials. 

Misappropriating other people’s money is as much a feature of South Africa’s business life as it is of political life. So too is the hopeless impunity side of it. 

Think of white-collar criminals like Markus Jooste, the big-business cigarette smugglers, the tax evaders. Think of the R50k per day “right honourable” senior counsels who use technicalities to keep them out of prison, are paid. Think of the bankers, accountants and lawyers who cashed in on State Capture, aptly called The Enablers by the organisation Open Secrets; the KPMGs, the Bain and Companies, the McKinseys – who all got a slap on the wrist before going back to their mansions. 

Although some have paid back relatively small amounts of money no individual had been held accountable. 

Impunity reins.

So what can be done?

Wasteful, irregular expenditure and corruption continue regardless of the new dawn – because there is rarely any punishment. 

In his last years in office the late Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu placed particular importance on attempts to introduce accountability through the Public Audit Amendment Act (read Makwetu’s 2019 speech on constitutional accountability for public resources here). The amendment to the act was a valiant attempt to staunch irregular and wasteful expenditure by introducing the concept of “material irregularity” in audits and consequences to such findings. 

How often this has been used and to what effect we don’t yet know. Perhaps the AGSA will tell us?

But its success depends on total transparency in public procurement (the bill must be passed this year as promised by the ANC) and expenditure as well as active oversight by active citizens and the media.

But even that will not be enough.

These days, with every breaking scandal there is a new referral to the SIU or National Prosecuting Authority. Great. But doing so rarely takes into account that their capacity is finite. We can’t just keep adding to their load and then complaining about “the length of time it takes to see prosecutions and people in orange overalls”. 

Appropriate needs-based investment in our criminal justice system will have a huge multiplier effect. So, as we enter budget month again we hope Treasury heeds the appeals of Shamila Batohi (and here) the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Andy Mothibi, the head of the SIU and others for much more resources (watch this webinar organised by the Health Sector Anti-Corruption Forum where they reflect on Covid-19 corruption). 

Further, if we want a truly capable state we also have to train and pay our public servants properly; not the bloated managerial class at the top (the ones who usually do the stealing), but those who occupy the frontlines in schools, hospitals and public offices. 

And to do all of this the privileged in this society will have to be prepared to pay our taxes. Despite all the evidence of malfeasance and failure at this defining moment in South African and world history, it’s necessary to willingly accept that the state has a critical role to play in extricating us from the worst crisis in a century and in ensuring that the world is reset on  a path to equality and social justice. 

The job of maverick citizens is not to despair, but to exercise continual oversight and bring an end to impunity. DM/MC

Mark Heywood is the Editor of Maverick Citizen.

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

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