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Corruption scandals: Too few questions, too much galumphing


Marianne Merten has written on Parliament since 2016 for Daily Maverick. The intersection of governance, policy and politics unfolds at many levels, from tiny nuggets of information hidden in the voluminous stacks of papers tabled at the national legislature to the odd temper tantrum by a politician. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes baffling, even after 26 years as a hack, there are few dull days in the parliamentary corridors.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the lessons from State Capture have not been learnt.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Two and a half hours plus of a Special Investigating Unit (SIU) briefing on Covid-19 personal protective equipment corruption. Some 45 minutes of a Q&A afterwards. Just two questions on the Covid-19 communications Digital Vibes tender scandal that effectively ended the Cabinet career of Zweli Mkhize.

“Whether or not the investigation will proceed unhampered in terms of the resignation of the minister?” asked ANC MP Bheki Hadebe late in the question session with Parliament’s public spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), on 1 September. He had been in the shuttle to Parliament and apologised for not quite having heard all the SIU had to say. The joys of Zoom meetings.

It was left to Scopa chairperson, IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa, to venture into the quagmire of possible ministerial complicity.

“‘May have committed actions of criminality’, if we could get clarity on that and what it means,” he said with reference to page 98 of the 118-page report. There, after listing “former minister”, it also lists failure to exercise oversight and “his action in compliance with the Constitution” and acting negligently and with conflicts of interests.

Fluffy questions beget candyfloss answers. No, the ministerial resignation would not hamper investigations. Possible criminality is mentioned “because we have found evidence pointing to criminal action”; the evidence had been enough to obtain a court order to freeze assets and to recover R11,542,710.

Scopa is usually much, much more vigorous. Scopa traditionally holds its head high amid the vapidity of other committees “welcoming” plans and “commending” officials for actually doing their jobs.

Maybe it was all still a step too far for ANC MPs to ask questions about a minister who built a high profile amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but now as an ordinary backbencher seems to have missed his first human settlements committee meeting.

Or maybe it was because actually no one cares, aside from the optics-sensitive Presidency. Having pledged to keep South Africa updated after the SIU report was handed over two months ago, headlines proclaiming Mkhize may yet be criminally charged would have been a splotch on the optics.

Hours after the Scopa SIU meeting, the Presidency said in a statement it is “processing” the Digital Vibes report. Notifications were to “all persons or entities referred to in the report so they may have an opportunity to object to its publication or part thereof”.

Like those pesky #GuptaLeaks, the Digital Vibes scandal has been reported on in great detail. Like in State Capture, who did what and where and how is known.

Mkhize has promised to take the Digital Vibes report on review to court for what he called its predetermined outcomes, procedural unfairness and closed mind in a “flawed and unfounded report”, according to his resignation letter on 5 August.

If Mkhize goes to court, the Digital Vibes SIU report becomes a public document as the basis of the legal action.

So, the Presidency notifying affected persons regarding possible objections to publishing that tender scandal report may turn out to be just another tick-box exercise.

Meanwhile, the SIU also recommended that seven senior and mid-level Health officials face departmental disciplinary action for procurement violations and unauthorised expenditure. By 8 July the SIU had referred 19 Health officials and private individuals for investigation and prosecution over fraud, corruption and money laundering.

Lawmakers could have asked qualitative oversight questions, even from the SIU. Why is no one yet suspended? What’s taking so long? What measures are now in place to prevent a reoccurrence?

They did not. Again, lawmakers didn’t. That’s the clearest signal yet that the lessons of State Capture for parliamentary oversight have not been learnt. And Parliament is galumphing along. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    The president is a brilliant escape artist even beating the famous Houdini. And the parliament? The less said the better.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Viva, ANC, Viva.

  • Chris Green says:

    So did CR lie to the Zondo commission, the ANC members and the citizens of South Africa when he said what he did about cleaning out corruption. Black bags of money do not reflect in the bank accounts which makes the new declaration of funds received from donors a half step – how are the election posters, T-shirts, grocery packs, JW Blue, etc being funded. Cash cows (read corruption) and rain makers are never culled, they are just renamed (or re-deployed to train someone new to do it). How much cash was withdrawn from all the linked bank accounts and dropped off at Luthuli House or at “another” site.

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