One of the most important lessons I learnt in the Eighties as the General Secretary of COSATU was never to spend money I did not have. We built a fighting machine for workers’ rights from the ground up. We did not spend our time looking to donors for some generous grant. Workers paid their weekly dues from the beginning outside the factory gates before we had subscription check off rights. They controlled the money and through it, they exercised their control on the policies and goals of COSATU. They were merciless with anyone who stole their money.
I listened to the Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, in his Budget speech, proud of the fact that over the past 20 years, tax revenue has increased tenfold, and will exceed R1 trillion next year. Economically active citizens have tripled to 15 million and 2.3 m businesses are now on a tax register at SARS. I also feel proud as a South African. In anyone’s books this is a good news story and Treasury deserves to be congratulated.
But how is it spent? The overwhelming view is that delivery is poor, marred by corruption and systems fail because of incompetence and mediocrity. Frankly we are sliding into a system of crony capitalism. That’s where government has to overcome a huge trust deficit with citizens. And this is what sparks the fury, the anger that is driving much of the close to 13,000 service delivery protests each year, many of them violent in our country. We cannot slide into a cycle of violence and counter-violence.
So, what do citizens who pay their taxes dutifully want today? We should restore confidence in our institutions.
The Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, speaking passionately on corruption says, “Let me be frank. This is a difficult task. We have little visibility of the hundreds of thousands of transactions from a multitude of centres. Even our ablest civil servants have had great difficulty in optimising procurement; it has yielded rich pickings for those who seek to exploit it. There are also too many people who have a stake in keeping the system the way it is. Our solutions, hitherto, have not matched the size and complexity of the challenge.”
This is a very important break from the past. We are not denying the scale of the problem. Now we can all unite to find the solutions. And in this, Mr. Minister, our citizens are the most important ally of government. But let us go beyond good intentions that become mired in the quagmire of the lack of political will we have seen in the past.
Setting up the Chief Procurement Office in the National Treasury to standardise pricing for certain goods and services across government is good. But what happens when state officials break the rules? Who are we expecting to enforce these rules? We have seen senior politicians flaunting the rules with impunity.
The National Treasury says it is currently scrutinising 76 business entities with contracts worth R8.4 billion which we believe have infringed the procurement rules, while SARS is currently auditing more than 300 business entities and scrutinising another 700 entities. Who are these companies and can we publish who they are? Are the serial offenders banned from trading with the State?
Although the National Treasury has eventually published its “Register for Tender Defaulters” on its website, the register has only thw names on it, and both people listed in the register were given suspended sentences. This means that the defaulters are not prevented from tendering for government contracts while serving these suspended sentences. We all acknowledge the scale of the problem but it continues to escalate.
Mr Minister, you said the National Treasury, in partnership with the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, has launched a series of expenditure reviews. Gordhan said the office of the Accountant-General has stepped up efforts to strengthen the financial control environment and has undertaken 27 forensic reviews over the past 12 months. When will you publish the results? What happens to the officials and companies implicated?
The Auditor General said that government entities racked up more than R2 billion of wasteful expenditure and incurred another R26.4bn in irregular spending in the last financial year. Who has been disciplined; who has been fired; who has been prosecuted, who has been jailed? Until we see evidence and perpetrators punished across the board without political favour, the citizenry will be skeptical.
Let us have greater transparency.
Living in the information era, we are often swept out to sea by the tidal wave of data. It is often incomprehensible. Like you, Mr. Minister, citizens want answers as to what our tax money has changed in the lives of our people on the ground. Undertake to break the billions into what local communities can understand. Arm them with the budget for each school, each clinic and each housing programme; tell us who the responsible official is; what his/her contact details are. Involve the community in measuring delivery by making the budgets allocated to them transparent. We are on your side.
Here are some humble suggestions:
* What about strengthening the Public Protector’s Office giving it greater powers and resources to investigate and shine a spotlight on corrupt practices.
* Support civil society initiatives to expose corruption like “Corruption Watch” and a host of other NGO’s and civil society organizations.
* Ensure full disclosure on the Internet of all expenditure and travelling expenses of Ministers, Premiers, all political office bearers and top officials every month
* Institute the ban on civil servants doing business with the state and make it a criminal offence.
* Publish all awards of tenders on the Internet. We want to know which company gets projects, what they promise to do and by when. We should have a big signboard outside each project that shows this.
*Scope creep and cost overruns must be penalised to prevent corrupt companies under-budgeting knowing that they will be able to grease their way through cost overruns.
*We need corrupt companies put onto a Blacklist that is public and banned from government contracts for 10 years
*We need CEOs to be liable for prison terms in addition to fines for collusion and corrupt practices
* There should be compulsory registration of lobbyists and a public register of every benefit they give to public office-bearers and state officials.
*We need a coordinated call centre receiving complaints from citizens that is run by a reputable, independent third party institution.
Mapping our money is a critical plank of that transparency and accountability. Treasury should institute a site that is offered as a free service. All code, content and data should be shared and openly licensed. As data literacy improves, applications will empower citizens to compare performance between local governments.
Parents will see information on which schools are succeeding and decide where to enroll their children. They will be able to compare the track record of clinics and alert the Treasury to unscrupulous entrepreneurs who don’t deliver for housing, water, toilets and other municipal services.
We will not have the scandals we saw in the Eastern Cape where six million people dependent on public health services suffered devastating consequences because R800m stolen by public officials. We will not have babies die because vaccines, needles, medicines and incubators have not been bought.
So, Mr. Minister, take us into your confidence and together we can build a better life for all South Africans. DM
"The surest defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity." ~ Joseph Brodsky