Opinionista Omphemetse S Sibanda 28 January 2021

Corruption Perceptions Index: Covid-19 PPE procurement scandals cement South Africa’s global ranking below 50

Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index lists fraud and corruption linked to emergency Covid-19 funds among the main challenges that face South Africa. But if you think these are the only challenges, think again.

Transparency International, in its 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index Report, says the index “paints a grim picture of the state of corruption worldwide. While most countries have made little to no progress in tackling corruption in nearly a decade, more than two-thirds of countries score below 50. Our analysis shows that corruption not only undermines the global health response to Covid-19, but contributes to a continuing crisis of democracy.”

Nobody should be surprised. Bribery, corruption, embezzlement and favouritism dominated most of 2020. For example, for the second consecutive year, South Africa placed 44th out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index published on 28 January 2021.

As I expected, South Africa’s grade for 2020 remains the same as in 2019, while minnows such as Ivory Coast, Angola, Ethiopia, Senegal and Tanzania improved their ratings significantly. So, after all, South Africa is not a true model of clean democracy in Africa. It may not be a significant decliner in the Corruption Perceptions Index, such as Congo, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Madagascar and Liberia, but it has not improved either.

This lack of improvement on the index puts the spotlight on the political will of the government and/or public officials to implement anti-corruption strategies and initiatives. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In my view, South Africa continues to be exposed as a typical African country, with governance overshadowed by corruption and corrupt activities, and close to being regarded as highly corrupt in terms of the Corruption Perceptions Index scales. Clearly, the manner in which South Africa handled its Covid-19 response contributed to the lack of improvement in the rating.

A cursory read of the report reveals that Covid-19-related corruption is at the heart of the poor performance of many countries. To borrow the words of Transparency International chairperson Delia Ferreira Rubio: “Covid-19 is not just a health and economic crisis. It’s a corruption crisis. And one that we’re currently failing to manage.”

Transparency International lists fraud and corruption linked to public procurement and misappropriation of emergency Covid-19 funds among the main challenges facing South Africa. But if you think these are the only challenges, think again.

South Africa and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa face the prospect of missing their Sustainable Development Goals in 2030 if the corrupt practices continue unabated. Already, the region is facing a rise in extreme poverty. These governments are called upon to take “decisive action” to “reverse the region’s position as the worst performing on the Corruption Perceptions Index”. (Corruption Perceptions Index Report, p20)

The Covid-19 response is now synonymous with corruption globally and there is a need for urgent change. Transparency International made several recommendations to improve the status quo, including strengthening oversight institutions: “The Covid-19 response exposed vulnerabilities of weak oversight and inadequate transparency. To ensure resources reach those most in need and are not subject to theft by the corrupt, anti-corruption authorities and oversight institutions must have sufficient funds, resources and independence to perform their duties.”

One can think of the quality of budgetary management and the strength of audit institutions to achieve a positive effect on corruption, which would ultimately increase trust in the government and strengthen its legitimacy. I am, however, not convinced there is a need for further strengthening of anti-corruption oversight institutions in South Africa. What we need is to suspend, on the spot, and fire government and public officials who are proven to have engaged in corrupt activities.

In South Africa, there is complicity by the government in letting corruption and corrupt activities run amok. For example, a series of corrupt acts in response to the Covid-19 crisis bears testimony that the country’s anti-corruption strategy is devoid of human rights and rule of law considerations. As noted by Corruption Watch, “the perpetrators of this corruption have been unashamedly brazen in their hijacking of emergency measures put into place to deal with Covid-19 in South Africa”. Every Tom, Dick and Harry finds it easy to steal from the taxpayers.

Yet, in every State of the Nation Address there is a hollow promise to end corruption. Look no further than the Maverick Citizen report on the money spent under questionable circumstances by the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) on hundreds of companies, allegedly for the “deep cleaning” and “decontamination” of schools, without any recommendation by the Department of Health or the Department of Basic Education. To be precise, the GDE is said to have spent R431,274,959 in just three months (between June and August 2020).

When you listen to the justifications and/or responses of the GDE officials and Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, who claimed to be clueless about what was happening, you can only deduce a classic case of lack of accountability and oversight, denialism, waste, fraud, corruption, tender-rigging and a careless attitude towards the suffering masses in the country and the many taxpayers, some of whom are lingering at home unable to feed their children.

So politically, morally and legally bankrupt is the South African government and everybody in Parliament who should be the vanguard of law and order that we should not expect any meaningful consequences with regard to all exposed and confirmed corrupt activities in the country. After all, South Africa is ranked 44 as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Thus a clarion call is made to civil society groups and the media to speak truth to power. But this can only happen when conducive conditions prevail for society and the media to hold governments accountable. Society must denounce corruption on all fronts.

Society has a bigger role to play if we want to see a shift to clean governance. The Corruption Perceptions Index Report recommended civic defence and activism in the fight against corruption. As rightly observed by Transparency International: “The Covid-19 crisis exacerbated the democratic decline, with some governments exploiting the pandemic to suspend parliaments, renounce public accountability mechanisms and incite violence against dissidents.”

Thus a clarion call is made to civil society groups and the media to speak truth to power. But this can only happen when conducive conditions prevail for society and the media to hold governments accountable. Society must denounce corruption on all fronts.

Corruption is endemic in South Africa. But to be fair to society, we cannot expect any meaningful anti-corruption movement and civic response if details of the level and extent of corruption are hidden from public scrutiny. We cannot as a society do much if we do not know details of the Covid-19 vaccination strategy, including the procurement and distribution of the vaccines. The issue of the vaccine distribution prioritisation roadmap remains unclear, at least to us ordinary members of society. There is a culture of silent impunity for those involved in corrupt activities. What is more concerning is that those with oversight responsibility are either missing in action or themselves corrupt. Corruption is encultured across government departments and the legitimacy of government is now eroded.

The open and transparent contracting process is one other intervention that has been discussed on this platform ad nauseum. As I have written previously, “the outcome of the gamble that the government took to introduce relaxed emergency public procurement measures is affecting South Africa’s response to Covid-19. The very same healthcare sector and environment that should be improved to handle Covid-19 is fraught with corruption and malpractice in the procurement and supply of personal protective equipment (PPE). The new emergency Covid-19 procurement approach is doing more harm than good. This is the harm that Corruption Watch, in April, warned National Treasury about.”

Now the chickens have come home to roost with an outcome of no improvement on the Corruption Perceptions Index. The Corruption Perceptions Index Report decries the drastically relaxed procurement processes in many governments. South Africa has been home to “rushed and opaque procedures” for Covid-19 response-related procurement, with kleptocrats, pilfering hands, thieves and corrupt public and private individuals having it good while the majority of the population suffers.  

The lack of transparency in the procurement process has led to “ample opportunity for corruption and the diversion of public resources”. So opaque and secretive are some of the procurement processes that even the MEC for education in Gauteng was oblivious to the possibility of corruption happening right under his nose, to the tune of R431,274,959.

Further, the report recommends as an improvement intervention the availability of publicly relevant data and guaranteed access to such data. I need not regurgitate the fact that the South African public remains concerned about corruption and spending of Covid-19 resources, including the uncertain debate about the country’s vaccination preparedness and distribution channels. 

“The publication of disaggregated data on spending and distribution of resources is particularly relevant in emergency situations, to ensure fair and equitable policy responses. Governments should also ensure people receive easy, accessible, timely and meaningful information by guaranteeing their right to access information,” said the report (p20). One thing about beating a drum is that it may hurt the eardrums of the player. Corruption in the procurement and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines is a well-known point of discussion.

One of the World Health Organisation documents addressing Covid-19 vaccines and corruption risks states the issue very simply for everyone to understand, even hard-nosed government officials:

“In a public health crisis, corruption risks in procurement are amplified by the urgency of needs, required flexibility and requested speed. This may create opportunities for individual discretion that can further increase the risk of corruption. Many countries have issued direct contracts without competitive processes and face challenges in ensuring that controls are in place to detect and prevent abuses and corrupt practices.

“Unscrupulous government officials may seek to enrich themselves, or those connected to them, through the procurement process by demanding kickbacks from suppliers. Suppliers, on the other hand, may exploit shortages to demand grossly inflated prices from government purchasers and collude with other suppliers to their advantage.

“If suppliers bribe government officials to circumvent regulatory controls, there is also a risk that governments may purchase substandard or falsified products, undermining the health of their populations and reducing their citizens’ trust and confidence in public institutions – as well as in the government’s response to the pandemic.”

In a previous opinion with regard to the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index rating of South Africa, I suggested that the government follow some of the recommendations in the report to rescue the country from the doldrums of a negative corruption index. In my view, little has been done to implement these recommendations and one should therefore not expect much in the implementation of the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index Report recommendations.

I would like to conclude with the following excerpt from Anwar Shah as an appeal to President Cyril Ramaphosa to not delay any further corrective action against those involved in corrupt practices in his ANC-led government.

“Many developing countries, however, continue to suffer from unsatisfactory and often dysfunctional governance systems that include rent-seeking and malfeasance, inappropriate allocation of resources, inefficient revenue systems and weak delivery of vital public services. Such poor governance leads to unwelcome outcomes for access to public services by the poor and other disadvantaged members of society, such as women, children and minorities.” DM

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  • The response will be more empty “clean up” promises by the President. Corruption in South Africa is endemic and won’t be resolved with words and no action.

  • This is what happens to a country so full of promise and talent when run by a totally inept, parasitic, intrinsically deceitful, clueless, thieving, pathetic and way past their sale by date party. They trade on their noble past when in fact they are very antithesis. Full of hot air, failure, impudence and arrogance. The tragedy is that they will be in power for much longer due to the gullible and naive masses. Civil society has to become a tsunami in fighting corruption with no mercy.

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