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Opinionista

Bloated government needs a push to end its profligate ways

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Wayne Duvenage is a businessman and entrepreneur turned civil activist. Following former positions as CEO of AVIS and President of SA Vehicle Renting and Leasing Association, Duvenage has headed the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse since its inception in 2012.

In today’s pandemic-induced economic meltdown, are we expected to watch the continuation of incessant waste and plundering? Every rand lost to maladministration and corruption is a rand too many.

Just as citizens and businesses have no option but to do more with much less in this rapidly changing world, our government is in urgent need of societal pressure and demand for a substantive reduction of its bloated size, wasteful expenditure, and to question its many unnecessary luxuries and trimmings.

Over the past decade or so, South African society has become complacent and tolerant of a gradual decline in prosperity, while its government has ballooned, become less efficient and grossly wasteful of national resources. Many people in authority believe their positions bestow on them the right to extend or abuse their granted powers, or that the rule of law and conflicts of interest don’t really apply to them or their appointed administrators.

However, there’s nothing like a crisis to spark shock therapy and widespread public demand for a radical transformation of government’s conduct to align with a mandate of good governance and service to suit its citizens.  

The halls and passages of public administration are crammed with people who vulgarly fail to be part of their overall objective, which is to provide consistently good service to the public. We see it everywhere today, from ministers who behave like irrational, power-hungry school principals, to mayors and municipal managers who, in the words of the auditor-general, “have little accountability and fail to exercise due care in managing public resources”.

Why is it that chief finance officers within most multibillion-rand businesses are largely occupied by people with the requisite qualifications, experience and competencies to manage their resources, yet we are expected to tolerate a plethora of unskilled and incompetent senior financial managers who fall well short of being able to handle citizens’ finances, in many multibillion-rand municipalities?

In truth, I have sincere sympathy for the hundreds – if not thousands – of public servants who are placed in positions of authority (accountants, legal managers, planners, HR practitioners etc), often set up to fail by having to pander to the whims and instructions of their errant political masters.

Society has become numb to many a multi-million/billion rand municipal and national project that is either abandoned midstream, or lacked the required build quality, or ran well over budget after suppliers were paid far more than what they were initially appointed for. A serious lack of transparency, competence, oversight and accountability (or all of the above) were most likely the reasons behind all these debacles. This has got to change.

In today’s pandemic-induced economic meltdown, are we expected to watch the continuation of incessant waste and plundering? Every rand lost to maladministration and corruption is a rand too much.

With citizens and businesses having no choice but to drastically tighten their belts, the demand of “et tu government?” must now come to be. Why should the public tolerate government’s unnecessary trappings of blue light brigades, free non-work-related travel perks for spouses, extra cars, expensive cars, five-star accommodation, entertainment expenses, first-class flights, chartered flights, state home upgrades, re-renovations and expensive furnishings, multiple consultants, and advisers and secretaries for their secretaries? Why the need for massive fractured government departments and deputy ministers?

The time is ripe for new rules and a significant mental paradigm shift in government’s conduct, spending habits and abuse of taxes, along with a focus on policies that matter when it comes to development and investment.

This is also the time to acknowledge the rational voices within government (such as Tito Mboweni and others) who see no need for superfluous state-owned entities (SOEs) that drain the public purse, or those not core to the functions of state. And what of those SOEs that raise their own revenue and thereby avoid Parliament’s oversight, yet they return to Parliament for approval of bailouts when their backs are against the wall, after periods of poor governance?

The time for a universal long-term plan, clarity and categorisation of SOEs is overdue. In addition, the appointment of SOE board members needs to lie less with politicians and include substantive input from forums including civil society. The blasé attitude to fiduciary duties is prevalent in many SOE board members, pointing to inadequate criteria or leniency in the required profile, skills and expertise of many an appointee.

The question often asked is, how does society ensure greater transparency, responsibility and accountability by those appointed to govern public finances and serve in the best interests of society?

The answer is relatively simple in explanation but more challenging in execution. To heighten, broaden and strengthen the existence of meaningful and organised civil society structures, equates to ramping up the volume of investigations, exposure, engagement, influence, mobilisation and litigation against the abuse of power.

Democratic elections come and go every five years, but civil society pressure is applied every day. It’s a case of current democracy, and today’s pandemic crisis provides society with new impetus for heightened pressure on our government to lead by example, to move fast in cutting the fat and extricating itself from the wasteful, lethargic and bloated condition it has come to occupy.

We would hope the president could lead this call and drive the many required initiatives from the top; however, his internal rivals are probably looking to flex their muscles and would most likely oppose these notions. Besides, government is generally incapable of self-correction, lacking in ability and desire for introspection and unpacking the roots of their inherent lack of respect for citizens’ taxes and rights. 

It will take a heightened civil activism with its high levels of social and moral courage to produce the radical mindset shift to dislodge government’s skewed and blinkered lenses, plastered thick with hubris, arrogance and a sense of superiority over their people.

No civil push – no change. That time is now. DM

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