Opinionista Ghaleb Cachalia 4 August 2020

At last, a glimmer of hope as Eskom begins to recover ‘lost’ billions

While R3,8bn is relatively small beer given Eskom’s debt which is currently north of R450bn, the issuing of summonses against 12 people accused of helping loot the utility sends a much-needed and long-awaited message to the lengthy list of crooks who have defrauded state-owned enterprises over many lucrative years.

Barely a day after the dawn of the new year, Mandy Wiener, writing for News24, asked whether 2020 was going to be the year of prosecutions for South Africa.

Following on from these high expectations some six months later, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) appears to have worked through the evidence and forensics to file summons in the North Gauteng High Court to recover R3.8-billion that was diverted from Eskom “to help the Gupta family and its associates acquire the operations of OVH, which owned Optimum Coal Mining”. If this is anything to go by, a number of prosecutions may well follow.

Eskom has listed 12 defendants in the current case – including the Guptas and their partners in crime, a former minister, former Eskom executives and a number of board members – which seeks to recover the R3,8-billion the utility suffered in associated losses.

While R3,8-billion is relatively small beer given that Eskom’s debt is currently north of R450-billion, give or take a billion or two, it does send a much-needed and long-awaited message to the lengthy list of crooks who have defrauded state-owned enterprises (SOEs) over many lucrative years.

Over and above this  clawback from the past, what is required across all SOEs and government departments is an emulation of the DA-run Western Cape provincial treasury, which has released the first-ever “Procurement Disclosure Report” detailing all personal protective equipment bought and paid for by the Western Cape government in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The report has been made available to the public.

The province’s Finance and Economic Opportunities MEC, David Maynier, explained that “this report is the first of its kind. It discloses in detail the procurement of PPE and it provides significant transparency… it goes a long way to mitigate risks in the procurement system. So at the end of the day, we can ensure that the vultures who feed on Covid-19 do not settle in the Western Cape.”

While Maynier’s remit is the Western Cape, in the wake of the exceedingly muddy waters churned up by the rapacious engine of the ANC in Covid-19 procurement structures across the country, this most welcome exercise in government transparency – if implemented more broadly across the nation – may well go a long way to securing a better future while the rogues of the past are brought to book.

In the same early January article, Wiener said, “there is only so much the executive can do to assure citizens and prospective investors that there is change and that there is no room for the corrupt and crooked. An effective, efficient and independent NPA, bringing the high-profile State Capture accused to book, will have a massive effect on public sentiment”. Later that same week, I concurred in my capacity as shadow minister, Public Enterprises, and further called for “full transparency, full forensic audits, the institution of rotating tier-1 audit firms and a halt to (this) profligacy at the expense of consumers”. These are the measures that are called for.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) lists three generally agreed upon principles that underpin good governance: accountability, meaning that it is possible to identify and hold public officials to account for their actions; transparency, meaning that reliable, timely and relevant information about the activities of government is available to the public; and openness, meaning that governments listen to citizens and businesses, and take their suggestions into account when designing and implementing public policies.

Half the problem with our SOEs is that simple, honest, accepted and essentially commonsense tenets like the OECD principles have not been adhered to. Instead, the manner in which our SOEs have been run have been shrouded in secrecy and rooted in a command and control culture. Hardly a surprise then, that tenders, procurement and key contracts shrouded from the public gaze, led to runaway opportunities for graft.

If government is able to separate and sever the interests of party and state and embrace an openness that has hitherto not even been paid lip service, we might begin to drain the swamp that chokes the flow of our fiscus. 

The jury is out on the matter but the pulse of the media – both social and mainstream – appears to indicate an increasing arrhythmia when it comes to measuring the ongoing acquiescence of citizens, investors and other key players. This cannot be seen to be a show trial organised by a government in order to have an effect on public opinion and reduce political opposition – not that the SIU and the prosecuting authorities are in any way complicit.

The modus operandi, that began with the nefarious Arms Deal in 1999 and continued ever since, needs to change. The question is: can it? DM

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