Opinionista Toby Shapshak 21 July 2021

If state data transparency is the new oil, then we need to start pumping it to rebuild our country

As we rebuild from the flames, we need to make government more transparent so citizens can see exactly how their money is being spent. If we have the info, we can prevent scandals like Digital Vibes and the theft of funds, as happened with VBS.

Toby Shapshak

Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

How do you describe the carnage, the looting, and the anarchy in South Africa this past week? My heart breaks for my country. The country that conquered apartheid and had a (mostly) bloodless transition to democracy. A country that conquered arguably the worst and most brutal racist regime since Nazi Germany.

How did we come to this? The reasons are simple: 27 years of democracy later and we’re effectively a basket case. The governing party is so riven with factions that it is self-immolating as it squabbles over the spoils of the tender trough. Too many municipalities no longer function, and the water and sewerage infrastructure is crumbling behind them. Meanwhile, debt-laden Eskom – the biggest threat to our economy – can barely keep the lights on.

In just over a generation – considered to be 20 years – South Africa has gone from rainbow nation to looter nation. Our politicians steal, our municipalities steal, the management of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) steal, big business has colluded with the theft, and our police are so useless the looters just ignored them.

Perhaps the most demoralising of all the images this last week were those of the hopelessly outnumbered cops standing, impotently watching, as looters streamed past without a care in the world.

In the midst of the madness, there were moments of sheer absurdity. At my local Woolies the meat fridges were empty and all the bread and Baby Soft toilet paper were sold out – but the house-brand toilet paper was available in abundance. In a crisis, South Africans know to choose double-ply.

So how can technology help with these governance problems? Quite easily, actually, as long as all the data is more publicly available. The so-called open data movement has been running for years in older democracies; where governments make their data available online and the citizens can see it, NGOs and watchdogs can examine it and therefore the public can have oversight.

We can see how this kind of transparency works just from the Political Party Funding Act, which President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into law in January. Companies that have happily donated to the ANC in the past are now not willing that their donations be publicly known. That shows you just how potent such transparency can be.

I suspect Ramaphosa understands this and knew what the consequences might be, but that his party supported this utterly necessary legislation is a huge win for the country.

If this kind of transparency was effected throughout the various levels of government, then there can be no bizarre Mahikeng routes negotiated with SA Airlink, for instance. Or if municipalities have to have all their functional data publicly available, there’s no chance of another VBS happening.

Goodbye to all those smallanyana skeletons – where a friend or family member of a municipal manager gets a tender, or when a friend of the health minister gets a R150-million contract for Digital Vibes.

In countries where the government makes its data available, this works very, very well. Interest groups can examine their area of interest, and journalists can check the data – as Pieter-Louis Myburgh did with the health department data in which he uncovered the Digital Vibes tenderpreneurs. This scandal, which is surely going to cost Zwele Mkhize his job and political career, was unearthed because the ruling party released information about Covid-19 procurement – after yet another tenders-for-friends debacle that saw an estimated R10-billion potentially looted just last year.

Imagine if all of Eskom’s contracts – like the contentious Econ Oil debacle – were available on its website, the opportunity for malfeasance would be severely limited.

South Africa knows, after 27 years, that the ANC is not good at managing money or vast government organisations – and it can’t even pay its own staff, whose ranks are riddled with “ghost workers”.

Along with this is the urgent need to professionalise the civil service, whose efficiency and work ethic will be visible if the government opens up its data.

As we rebuild from the flames, we need to think about rebuilding not just the burnt buildings but also the way government is conducted so that citizens can see exactly how our money is being spent. We need the data, and we need it quickly and easily – not through longer processes using the access to information legislation. If data is the new oil, then we need to start pumping it to rebuild our country in a better way. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores until 24 July 2021. From 31 July 2021, DM168 will be available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores.

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