Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 5 March 2013

Dear Minister Gordhan, let’s talk frankly…

In his budget speech last Wednesday, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan issued the latest of a series of threats to clamp down on public-sector corruption. But why issue yet another declaration of intent when that there is no shortage of laws to deal with corruption? And why do we mollycoddle those who continue to steal from the public purse?

Dear Minister Gordhan,

Well done on your budget speech last week. Like your predecessor, as usual you have firmly repudiated the notion that there is no competence in the public sector. You and your team continue to demonstrate competence and efficiency. With you at the helm – and now with more political clout to go with it given your recent election to the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), many of us can rest easy as we marvel at what must be President Jacob Zuma’s best appointment yet. 

I am not writing this letter to praise you, but to highlight what stood out in your speech: You have outdone yourself this time in using the most stringent of threats to those who are involved in corrupt activities in the public sector.  However, for me, it does not yet add up why so many people are getting away with being corrupt. I believe that there is no shortage of laws to deal with the corruption of civil servants. Charging them with fraud for “doing business with themselves” should pretty much do the trick. Our problem is that we believe in too many declarations and threats while we mollycoddle those who are flagrantly carrying on with open theft of public resources.

I am beginning to suspect that there is poor political will to fire people who have been fingered for turning the public purse into their own piggy bank. If that is not the case, please tell me what has happened to about 2,000  civil servants who were fingered by the auditor general in 2009 as having conducted business with themselves to the tune of R640 million. Surely these people are the first ones that we must use as an example of how we are going to translate your well-expressed threat to cut off their lifeline into some consequence? I am a bit confused about why we need new declarations in this regard when we have at least 2,000 civil servants allegedly guilty of the very thing that you are threatening to root out.

Recently the auditor general indicated that about R1 billion was lost to corruption – in addition to the losses through corruption we already knew about.  I was waiting with baited breath to understand what was going to be done to recover this R1billion. The National Prosecuting Authority’s corruption register only has a handful of names of people who have been convicted as a result of the auditor general’s report. Granted there are numerous proclamations that the president has issued to investigate corruption. It is time someone tells us what has happened to those proclamations, who has been found guilty and what action has been taken against them. One more proclamation is not going to make the perception you have pointed out – that government is soft on corruption ­– go away anytime soon. It does not help matters that recently the auditor general has pronounced that only 5% of our municipalities had clean audits. This is the bedrock of corruption that you need to focus on with a hawk’s eye. 

Dear Minister, it is refreshing to hear a politician say something that goes to the nub of the issue: That there are too many people who are willing to keep the situation as it is – the current chaos essentially, benefits too many people. You went on to point a direct finger at politicians at all levels. Half the time they are the force behind some of the civil servants who are plundering the fiscus. Well done. Someone needed to tell your colleagues this home truth. But, once again, it can’t be just a declaration that makes you stand out as one who has the courage to speak truth to power through the articulation of your numbers. It has to be followed through with public action. The ANC has armed you through the upcoming integrity commission. This is not something that will automatically take root in the movement if people of your calibre don’t ensure its implementation and effective use to root out the bad apples that give the movement a bad name. It is when we act against our own that the general public will take your latest declarations a tad more seriously. We cannot afford corruption to be used as some election campaign issue when we have made all the right noises against it. To this end the public needs to be made aware of some of the strides being made, such as the appointment of hundreds of ethics officers across government to monitor corruption at all levels. The trick is to protect them so that they can do their work free from intimidation. With so many people willing to let the status quo remain, you can only imagine how much intimidation there will be. This should not be allowed – you need to set an example or two in really taking firm and unflinching action should such intimidation be brought to your attention.

Your focus on how to deal with corruption is linked to the efficiency of your job. The vigour with which companies that don’t pay tax are being pursued, must be the same vigour that we should pursue to plug the leaking tap that has resulted in R1 billion, at least, being lost to corrupt activities. Increasing the Public Protector’s budget in order that it can keep up the good work must be commended. We both know that not all of our comrades are jumping with joy at Thuli Madonsella’s gung-ho approach that has seen a few go into the sunset. No surprises that whispers of impropriety on her part have been going around, all aimed at distracting her from her good work. Frankly, she must be left alone to pursue the corrupt. We know a lot of people who should be pursued for milking the fiscus dry and they are not being bothered.

It is crucial that, as you balance the books, we focus vigorously on where the tap is leaking. If we plug those holes estimated at an entire R1 billion we will hopefully be able to increase the social grants to the most vulnerable in our society with much more than a few tokenistic rands as you did last week, and increase the incentives to businesses that will bother to create opportunities for our young people who are losing hope every day. That hope has its nose rubbed in the mud at each revelation of corruption. Finally, with a stick of a trillion-rand budget at your disposal, you need to do more to finger private sector corruption – something that always receives limited attention. I wish your chief procurement officer well – not too many wish he should even exist, let alone succeed.

Yours frankly,

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane DM



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