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Beyond Nene: Ethical shortcomings in the public sector


Sean Muller is currently a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Johannesburg, where he teaches microeconomics and industrial policy. Prior to this he worked at the Parliamentary Budget Office and at the University of Cape Town. He has a Master's and PhD in economics from UCT, and an MPhil Economics from Oxford. Among his broad academic interests, within and outside of economics, are a wide range of topics within applied microeconomics, philosophy of economics and public finance. He has been writing opinion pieces on a wide range of South African issues, particularly relating to public policy, for over a decade.

In South Africa’s public service the proportion of officials with strong, clear commitments to ethical principles is small. Officials like Themba Maseko — who dismissed the Guptas’ overtures and demands with outrage — are exceptions.

The most recent drama in the State Capture saga is the revelation by Nhlanhla Nene in his testimony at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry that he met members of the Gupta family at their personal residence, contradicting an earlier denial — in a media interview — that this had happened.

Some weeks before, it had been revealed that Vincent Smith — recently appointed to chair the committee looking into the Public Protector’s fitness to hold office — had, at the least, received a loan from a company (Bosasa) that received tenders from the Department of Correctional Services while Smith was chairperson of the portfolio committee overseeing that department.

Nene has now apologised for meeting the Guptas at their private residence, without an accompanying official. Smith, to my knowledge, has not apologised, but he has stepped aside from his more senior roles as an MP.

As pointed out by the deputy public protector Kevin Malunga (on his personal Twitter account):

The elephant in the room for public and indeed private sector officials is how to avoid real or apparent conflict of interest”.

Nene and Smith are politicians, but government officials are frequently faced with similar ethical dilemmas. Some readers might be shocked that I suggest these situations are even “dilemmas” — the ethical stance is surely obvious?

I agree, but many years ago I realised that my own clarity of vision on such ethical questions was not widely shared.

Some time ago, an initiative was created called the Public Policy Partnership, which was a collaboration between donors, some government departments and universities to systematically develop a cadre of new, demographically representative public servants.

The idea was that ultimately government would take over and expand the programme, but that never happened and ultimately, sadly, the initiative was shut down. To my knowledge, 15 years later, no comparable initiative exists in the state.

That aside, one of the components of the programme were “winter schools” over the university holidays in which programme fellows did a range of courses and projects to prepare them for public service. One such course was ethics. In one of our first classes the lecturer posed the following scenario, which I paraphrase:

Imagine you are the minister of housing. Company X currently has a multi-billion tender with your department for the provision of RDP houses. The original tender was competitive and above board, but is also lapsing soon and the company will have to submit to another tender process. At a business-government event you casually mentioned to the CEO of the company that you were thinking about renovating your home. He immediately offered to assist, saying that they would be able to give you a 40% discount on any work done. Would you accept this offer?

I was annoyed with the lecturer, and said as much, because I felt that he was wasting our time: obviously it would be improper for a minister to accept such an offer. Nevertheless, he put the question to the class. By a show of hands: one third of the class said it would be improper, one third said they were not sure, and one third said it was entirely acceptable.

One of my classmates, then an active member of the ANC Youth League, went further and argued that in fact it was her right and duty to take such benefits — black people had, after all, been denied opportunity for too long and had catching up to do.

It was a very disturbing experience, but one that served to harden me a little for what I subsequently experienced in public sector institutions.

The real tragedy is that 15 years later we have not built a culture of basic ethics in the public service. At best, one finds the detritus of Thabo Mbeki’s much-vaunted, but ultimately inconsequential, Batho Pele initiative hanging, torn and tattered, on walls of corrupt government departments and other state agencies.

The result is that we rely almost entirely on the pre-existing scruples of individuals when in fact the proportion of officials with strong, clear commitments to ethical principles is small. Officials like Themba Maseko — who dismissed the Guptas’ overtures and demands with outrage at their disregard for the mandate of our democratic state — are exceptions.

Another problem is that the dynamics of corruption, and the histories and personas of the corrupt, also appear to have become more sophisticated. There are many salutary stories from others, but let me tell one of my own.

As part of my internship for the above capacity-building programme, I worked at the national Department of Transport. One of the projects I worked on was the transport sector’s Black Economic Empowerment Charter.

Due to the illness and then death of Minister Dullah Omar, the Minister of Public Enterprises — Jeff Radebe — had acted as transport minister and was then permanently appointed to the post. He brought with him some of his top officials. A form of “cadre deployment” one might say, but my impression was that these officials were of higher calibre than those already in the department, so in that sense it did not seem too improper.

One day, one of these officials, who had been appointed at DDG level, sent out a request for someone to accompany him to a meeting. As it happened, the chief director was sick, my manager was away, my mentor was on training, and so it was that as a lowly intern I accompanied the DDG to this meeting.

He was good-natured about it and I drove with him to the offices of a transport company that had requested the meeting. It emerged that they were looking to structure a BEE deal and wanted “advice” as to whether they should go with what had been the traditional route of involving a small number of black, politically connected, shareholders or implement a broad-based worker empowerment scheme.

The room was shadowy and the tone even more so; I had the distinct impression that if the DDG had mentioned names that he would recommend, the company would have acted upon such a recommendation. That in turn would, presumably, have put the DDG in a position where he could secure side-payments for such ‘introductions’.

But the DDG evinced no uncertainty at all:

Do a broad-based scheme”, he said, “that is the policy approach of government now”. To my knowledge, they did.

The DDG was a man by the name of Lucky Montana — now better-known for his alleged role in widespread corruption at the Passenger Rail Agency. DM


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