Maverick Citizen: Tuesday Editorial
Cover-up? Gauteng government retreats from financial transparency
Amid the condemnation of looting by the poor, the Gauteng provincial government has set a bad example by making it easier for the looting of public resources by well-off government officials. Its earlier commitment to transparency about Covid-related public expenditure has been reversed and replaced with a veil of secrecy enforced by officials who are no longer willing to share information with the media.
This week will mark exactly a year since a scandal erupted over corruption in the Gauteng health department in relation to the procurement of the personal protective equipment needed for the response to the gathering Covid-19 epidemic. Heads have rolled, including that of former MEC Dr Bandile Masuku.
In the wake of the scandal, Gauteng Premier David Makhura emerged to claim the high ground as a proponent of clean and transparent government; he repeatedly promised open finances, lifestyle audits and intolerance of officials implicated in corruption. One of the important reforms his government introduced was the Covid-19 Expenditure Disclosure reports, published monthly by the Gauteng treasury on the province’s website (here).
The first report appeared in August 2020, covering April to July. A further six reports were published, providing accounts of expenditure during August, September, October, November, December 2020 and, finally, January 2021.
The reports were accessible, easy to interpret and extremely helpful in advancing accountability and public engagement. They provided an account of every item of expenditure, month by month, department by department and by classification. They also listed which companies received funds, how much they received and their central supplier database (CSD) number.
By doing so they fulfilled a crucial constitutional responsibility to abide by basic values and principles governing public administration, notably Section 195(1)(f) to “be accountable” and (g) to “provide the public with timely, accessible and accurate information”.
Gauteng’s reports were also more accessible than those developed by other provinces, who also now appear to have ceased reporting on their Covid-19 expenditure. We have recently received evidence that municipalities, Johannesburg in particular, whose Covid-related spending has not been examined at all, may be another scandal in the making.
As a result of this transparency, in Gauteng at least, it was possible for citizens and journalists to analyse, question and, where necessary, investigate public expenditure. It was possible to evaluate whether the government was operating in keeping with Section 217 of the Constitution – that “contracts for goods or services… must be in accordance with a system which is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective.
Unfortunately these reports showed they were not. The information they contained led directly to exposés of:
- Wasteful expenditure and probable corruption in relation to the alternative building technology (ABTs) projects to build four new ICU hospitals to prepare for increased numbers of patients needing care and admission to hospital as a result of Covid-19. These hospitals are still not finished or equipped;
- The R431-million spent by the Gauteng education department on “sanitising” schools. This exposé has already led to the freezing of assets worth more than R60-million in private bank accounts and an ongoing investigation by the SIU;
- The R117-million (at least) spent by the Gauteng department of infrastructure development on “fogging” and “fumigating” public buildings. These contracts too are being investigated by the SIU; and
- Evidence that the Gauteng treasury was vulnerable to fraud because it’s calculations were shown to be out by at least R250-million, something the treasury acknowledged but has yet to rectify.
However, inexplicably the January 2021 expenditure disclosure report turned out to be the last to be published. The media spokesperson who had previously cooperated and communicated willingly went silent and in response to several emails would say only that he would “inform us when the next report is published”.
This was until 28 May, when Tshepo Shawa, spokesperson for the finance MEC, issued a statement by the Gauteng treasury saying that a consolidated Covid-19 expenditure report would be “published for public scrutiny next month”. It promised that it would:
“Detail all Covid-19 expenditure incurred by departments and entities in the fight against the pandemic during the previous financial year in accordance with the National Treasury instruction note 11 of 2020. This information will include spending figures for the last quarter of the financial year, including amendments to the January Covid-19 expenditure report.”
However, exactly two months later the report is still nowhere to be seen. Shawa failed to provide information five times and on Monday could only say that it was “nearing completion”.
Late on Monday afternoon, he issued a statement saying the reason for the non-publication was due to the coming into effect on 1 July of the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) – a post facto reason that had never been given before. While we understand the importance of compliance with POPIA and the public purpose of protecting privacy, we worry that in this instance the act is being used to hinder another right, that of access to information.
As an aside, we note the act’s as yet untested exemption for journalists seeking information in the public interest. We hope that this is not the beginning of a new trend in government to frustrate transparency.
On 28 May, Shawa said the information in the expenditure disclosure reports “forms part of the annual financial statement to be submitted to the Office of the Auditor-General for auditing purposes. Once the audit process has been completed, we will publish the annexures of the final expenditure figures should there be differences between the audited and unaudited figures.”
On Monday he contradicted this statement by saying the Auditor-General’s “audit process” was still ongoing and must be finalised before the report’s publication.
Hide and seek
Worryingly, this return to hiding information and obfuscation is not confined to the treasury.
Linked to some of the findings from a study of the Expenditure Disclosure reports, Corruption Watch has been trying to find out more about the decision-making process that has led to hundreds of millions of rands in possibly corrupt expenditure. However, a Promotion of Access to Information Act request for “minutes of the meetings of the Gauteng Provincial Covid-19 Command Council (GPCC) since its inception, presentations made at the meetings and any annexures to the minutes such as expert reports and memos tabled at meetings”, has been stonewalled since May.
We wonder what in the deliberations of the GPCC could be considered secret when its only business is to coordinate information and interventions to protect the public from the Covid-19 pandemic.
What more does the provincial government have to hide?
Over the past few months Maverick Citizen has been patiently waiting for the Gauteng government to act lawfully, transparently and in accordance with the law.
Our patience has run out.
Trust in the government’s financial management is extinct.
Every day tens of thousands of people in Gauteng struggle to beg or steal a few rands to eat or send their children to school. Hospitals are starved of funds. So it is only appropriate that we insist on knowing how billions of rands that could make a real difference are being spent.
But from the above record, sadly, we can only surmise that Premier Makhura and his cabinet have concluded from bad experience that transparency concerning public expenditure is bad for corrupt government business. They have something to hide. As some of the most senior politicians and heads of department in Gauteng are implicated by what these reports have already revealed, that is understandable.
More information might make matters worse.
But that’s not our problem. These are our rights and people’s lives depend on them.
For all these reasons we call for immediate publication of the missing reports and investigation by the treasury, SIU and Auditor-General as to the causes of the delay. DM/MC
Addendum: a series of questions sent to National Treasury and the SIU were not answered in time. This editorial will be updated should new information be made available.
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