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Ethics? What ethics?

Ian Ollis is currently a candidate for the Masters of City Planning (Transportation) programme at MIT in Boston. He formerly served as a South African MP, (Shadow Transport, Labour and Education Minister). He has also worked as a city councillor in Johannesburg, briefly lectured at Wits University and ran a real estate company. He has no dogs!

It’s mystifying that so many politicians can’t seem to grasp the most basic ethical requirements of their posts. And that they fail even to consider there may be ethical considerations at all.

It never ceases to amaze me how poorly many ANC and other politicians seem to understand ethical issues such as conflicts of interest, gifts and bribes and what is appropriate business activity for a political leader. It is an area fraught with difficulty, but many appear blissfully unaware that their behaviour in the area of financial impropriety leaves much to be desired or, alternatively, they chose not to understand. 

Take for example Ruth Bhengu MP, chairwoman of the Portfolio Committee of Transport on which I sit in Parliament. Bhengu was one of those MPs found to have transgressed the rules of Parliament during the Travelgate scandal. She was redeployed after Travelgate and, subsequent to the rise of Jacob Zuma, was re-elected and rewarded for her trouble with a chairmanship, which of course comes with an increased salary, staff and other perks. One would have imagined that Travelgate might have taught her a lesson. Not so!

Bhengu was recently reported again to Parliament’s ethics committee on charges relating to another conflict of interest, this time involving her business dealings with Santaco, the national taxi association which is attempting to launch an airline. It seems Bhengu is on the way to concluding a business relationship with Santaco to supply oil, fuel or jet fuel (the details are unclear at this stage) to Santaco via her business interests in the transport sector. The concern is that there may be a conflict of interest should she preside over hearings involving the taxi industry while she has ongoing business interests in the industry.

Then, while the investigation and hearings into Bhengu’s behaviour were going on (of which she was aware), she took matters even further. On 15 May we were called to attend a Transport Committee meeting and the Agenda read as follows:

1.  Adoption of minutes

2. Briefing by the Department of Transport on the accessibility of air transport by the poor

3. Presentation by Standby Travel Ltd

Bhengu did state for the record that her daughter had a significant financial interest in Standby Travel, then proceeded to chair the meeting. My colleague Greg Krumbock and I conferred for a minute and then interrupted proceedings and asked Bhengu to please recuse herself from the chair if her daughter’s company had been invited (presumably by her) to brief our committee. 

She did vacate the chair, thankfully, and another senior ANC member on the committee took over. After listening to the briefing, we all asked questions. It emerged that Standby Travel was also busy negotiating with Santaco to assist with selling of tickets on Santaco’s proposed airline! I still didn’t understand the purpose of their presentation to the committee, however, so I asked the presenters questions in this regard. 

The answer given was that they were hoping for funding from government. To launch the discount ticketing system that would be offered by Standby travel, the company needed approximately R15-million, if memory serves, to pay for the computer system and the shareholders were hoping that government would provide the funding! How the Transport Committee was supposed to arrange such project finance is beyond me, as we do not even approve the department’s own budget from treasury, however there was clearly a behind-the-scenes plan of some kind.

I do not serve on Parliament’s Ethics Committee, however I understand it had concluded its investigation into Bhengu last week. I understand that she has not been found guilty of breaking the rules of Parliament in the letter of the law, however her case has been referred to the Speaker of Parliament as it was felt that an actual conflict of interest is fast approaching. If the Speaker has his head screwed on right he will probably recommend to the ANC whippery that Bhengu be removed as chair of Transport and replaced with someone with no ties to the industry.

What makes this case significant is that it demonstrates a growing problem in the ruling party. Many ANC politicians seem to think that if one declares one’s business interests they are then absolved of any conflict of interest. They in fact often continue to act as if the conflict did not exist. If I declare the connection with Santaco in my Register of Members’ Interests, then I am entitled to continue doing business with the company even if I chair the transport committee. If I declare my daughter’s interest, then I can proceed as if the conflict isn’t there. Remember S’bu Ndebele and the gift of an S-Class Mercedes Benz? It’s not a matter of removing oneself from the environment to prevent the ethical impropriety, but merely a matter of declaring the issue for record keeping purposes. 

We need to hold politicians to account to the good old fashioned ethical standards that we used to expect of leaders. If you have a private interest in a matter before a committee or board, then you should recuse yourself from the chair at least, if not the meeting. If you are offered a large or valuable gift by a person or company closely aligned to matters over which you have an interest, you should just turn down the gift or give it to charity. It’s a shame that we have to explain and remind leaders of this necessity. DM


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