What are the Auditor-General corruption allegations about?
Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke has been accused of corruption by a member of her own office — a very serious allegation, considering Maluleke’s role on the national stage. Accusations, counter-accusations, alleged blackmail threats and a suspension have followed. We peer through the smoke to see if there’s a fire.
Set the scene. Who are the major players in this particular mess?
The key figure here is the Auditor-General, Tsakani Maluleke, who has been in her position since December 2020, replacing the now deceased Kimi Makwetu. Maluleke is the first woman to hold the position of Auditor-General of South Africa — a post she ascended to after serving as Makwetu’s deputy since 2014. There was no controversy around her appointment, since she is well regarded in the world of accounting and auditing. Since taking over the AGSA top job, things have been progressing smoothly — till now.
Maluleke’s antagonist in this story is the AGSA’s now suspended head of human resources — or “Chief People Officer”, in currently trendy corporate-speak — Mlungisi Mabaso. It is Mabaso who has accused Maluleke — his boss — of “corrupt, unprofessional and unethical conduct”.
When and how did this all happen?
The main version of events we have to rely on is the Auditor-General’s. Although all this has only been made public in the past week, the events in question actually stretch back to June.
The AGSA says that on 27 June, Mr HR (Mabaso) had a meeting with Maluleke in which he accused her of corruption. The Sunday Times has reported that the meeting took place amid a fallout between the two “over how [Maluleke] spoke to [Mabaso] in front of subordinates”.
During this meeting, the AGSA states that Mabaso effectively tried to blackmail his boss, telling her he “wanted mutual separation on condition he received a financial settlement in exchange for him not exposing allegations to the public”.
In other words, Mabaso allegedly demanded a fat payout for leaving his post quietly. Without said payout, he threatened to go public with his claims about Maluleke’s corrupt activities.
On 5 July, Mabaso was suspended pending an investigation into both his alleged blackmail and Maluleke’s alleged corruption by law firm Bowmans. That investigation cleared Maluleke, but took a dim view of Mabaso’s conduct, resulting in his being charged with gross misconduct over the alleged blackmail on 18 August.
On the same day, which is unlikely to be a coincidence, Mabaso pulled the trigger on his threats and wrote to the parliamentary committee which oversees the AGSA, the Standing Committee on the Auditor-General (Scoag), to air his claims against Maluleke and request an investigation into her conduct.
Maluleke and her deputy, Vonani Chauke, briefed Scoag on the matter on 26 August.
All of this entered the public domain on 31 August, when AGSA released a statement laying out the basics of the dispute without giving any details of the corruption allegations against Maluleke.
So the Auditor-General herself came forward with the news that she was being accused of corruption? Doesn’t that suggest she has nothing to hide?
Maybe. In the AGSA statement, Maluleke is quoted as saying: “The allegations made are of a serious nature and should not be taken lightly. We have adopted a stance that if we are to add value to strengthen the systems of integrity, transparency, accountability and performance in public institutions, we must hold ourselves to the same standards or better yet, lead by example.”
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
That does indeed sound praiseworthy. But a cynic might also suggest that since it is inevitable that the story would reach the media at some point, Maluleke is shrewdly getting ahead of the narrative and controlling its framing. That’s the advice you would get from most “crisis communications” experts in such a situation.
Cut to the chase: what was Maluleke accused of?
Mabaso has made nine claims in total. The majority revolve around actions allegedly taken by Maluleke while she was Deputy Auditor-General, and which deal with payments allegedly made to former Auditor-General Makwetu. (Since Makwetu died of cancer just before his time in office ended in late 2020, nobody has the benefit of his input into these claims.)
These claims include:
- That Maluleke improperly approved the payment of R575,358 from the AGSA office to cover transfer costs associated with Makwetu moving properties, on the grounds that he needed to do so for security reasons;
- That Maluleke, in her capacity as accounting officer as well as Deputy Auditor-General, improperly approved an increase of Makwetu’s salary by 10%;
- That Maluleke improperly advanced Makwetu R860,000 from the office of the AGSA in November 2018, from a payout he was only due at the end of his term two years later, after Makwetu requested financial assistance for “major family commitments”; and
- That Maluleke “pressured” Mabaso to appoint her personal business coach to run a leadership programme for the AGSA office at a cost of more than R11-million.
Is there any reason to believe these claims?
The investigation undertaken by Bowmans concluded, to quote the AGSA statement, that there was “no merit in the allegations that the AG’s conduct amounted to corruption or unprofessional, unethical behaviour”.
Various “insiders” in the AGSA office also told the Sunday Times that the claims were baseless. The sole voice to the contrary has been Mabaso’s.
Auditors being implicated in corruption is bad, but hardly unprecedented. Why the big stink around this particular case?
Because it’s the Auditor-General — a person who has to be absolutely beyond reproach, as a figurehead for good, clean governance. It’s a role which requires the holder to frequently appear in public and rail against state or municipal corruption. This is hard to do convincingly if the shadow of graft is hanging over your own head.
To quote the AGSA itself: “The AGSA is the country’s supreme audit institution. It is the only institution that, by law, has to audit and report on how government is spending taxpayers’ money.”
In fact, one of the final recommendations of the Zondo report was that the AGSA’s resources be beefed up, since private sector audit firms had revealed themselves to be so unreliable when it came to spotting and halting State Capture corruption. As a country, we rely on the AGSA as one of the most critical anti-corruption institutions.
What happens now?
It does not appear as if the Bowmans’ findings are being greeted as definitive proof of Maluleke’s innocence — with some justification, since local law firms revealed themselves to be far from infallible or incorruptible when it came to these kinds of investigations during the Zuma years.
In its most recent editorial, the Sunday Times opined: “The office of the auditor-general is too important for the allegations to be allowed to linger. It is for this reason we believe that parliament, the institution before which the AG accounts, should immediately probe the claims made by Mabaso and Maluleke against each other.”
The relevant parliamentary committee, Scoag, indicated last week that it was awaiting a report on the matter from the AGSA office “to see what further steps, if necessary, the committee would have to undertake”.
Mabaso, meanwhile, who remains on suspension, has to appear before the AGSA’s disciplinary committee before the end of September 2022. If he is dismissed, as seems likely, do not expect him to leave quietly.
Anything to add?
Well, yes. It would be remiss of us not to point out that we are not too far from the ANC’s electoral conference, traditionally a time where damaging claims against high-profile figures suddenly start arriving thick and fast.
There is no evidence currently that Mabaso is acting in concert with any particular political faction. But it is noteworthy that those listed above have all taken strong anti-corruption stances, and taken together, this all helps build a climate of reduced trust in the administration of Ramaphosa — who is fighting for re-election in December. DM