And so the public purse keeps bleeding

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From Oscar Pistorius’s trial, to the IEC’s lease and the Nkandla report, this week spelt disaster for the taxpayer, says Pinky Khoabane

If there was ever any doubt about the extent to which the public purse is being bled, then this past week could certainly be used as a barometer. From the litany of witnesses in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, now dubbed “the trial of the century”, to the Independent Electoral Commission’s lease and the damning report on the vast sums paid for the Nkandla “security renovations”, the entire week spelt disaster for the taxpayer and exposed the deep crevices in the government’s tender system. And perhaps more importantly, the godly fear of those who hold senior positions.

But this abuse of power and fear is not only endemic in the public sector – it can also be found in the private sector.

In the case of Nkosana Makate V Vodacom for example, the erstwhile chief executive, Alan Knott-Craig, was shown to have run Vodacom as if it were his own; handing over 5 percent of the organisation to BEE with a handshake; without any mandate from shareholders, giving away millions to politicians without due process; enlisting the advertising agency of his niece and nephew at millions of rand, and purchasing a product from his son to whom he paid 85 percent of the sales made from it when the company paid 15 percent to other service providers.

We also know, through the Competitions Commission price-fixing cases, the extent to which construction companies – as just one example of collusions entered into by private companies – defrauded the public purse to the tune of an estimated R47 billion, siphoning off what could easily make the arms deal look mundane.

The week began with Day 11 of the Pistorius case and the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, had called police photographer Warrant Officer Barend van Staaden to the stand. Van Staaden had photographed the bloody trail leading from Pistorius’s bathroom.

In cross-examination, defence counsel Barry Roux spent copious amounts of time on the number of pictures, where they were taken – in the garage or in the bedroom – the condition in which Van Staaden found the accused, whether the accused was in the bloodied shorts… And so he went on.

And as has become Roux’s trademark, he repeated each question numerous times.

According to those in the know (the lay people who have suddenly become legal experts), this is a tactic to confuse the witness, when all I can see is time and money wastage. In Roux’s case, this translates into a lot of money.

If true that the defence counsel is being paid R50 000 a day, the man has already made himself R750 000 since the trial began. Roux’s fee shouldn’t ordinarily worry the taxpayer, but the pinch will come if Nel loses this case.

We are not even on the twentieth witness yet and the State has listed 107 witnesses. With the defence still to bring its own witnesses, you need only do the maths to see that this case will be going on for quite a while.

Ballistics expert Captain Chris Mangena offered a glimmer of hope in addressing the issue of intent to murder as he explained the sequence of shots and the likelihood or not of Steenkamp screaming between the shots.

If the first of those four shots had been the one to her head, described as so lethal as to have killed her instantly, the chances of her screaming thereafter are highly unlikely.

If those of us counting the rands and cents in the Pistorius case had not had enough, out came the Treasury’s report on the IEC lease and the public protector’s report on Nkandla.

The extent to which costs were inflated in both cases sends shock waves through one’s system but it is the fear of those working on the projects, to question seniors on issues of conflict of interest, burgeoning costs and the violation of due process that is astounding.

President Jacob Zuma’s architect, Minenhle Makhanya, for example, was being paid a percentage of the project’s costs in contrast to normal practice where consultants are paid a fee of an hourly rate based on the time spent on the project.

It doesn’t require rocket science, therefore, to see why he would opt for the most expensive features and would want to pile on anything in that property to make up for his fee, which ended up at about R16m.

And yet senior government officials allowed this to happen under their watch. It was obviously a matter of much discomfort since the public protector’s report alludes to minutes of meetings in which the escalating costs and the apportionment of costs to the owner were being discussed.

That it took costs to reach more than R200m for any one of these people to have the balls to leak it to the media is a travesty. It has cost the taxpayer millions, which could have been used elsewhere.

The only saving grace of the week is the strength of our democracy, without which the IEC lease and Nkandla upgrades would never have come to light, and none of the ensuing investigations would have taken place.

We can only hope that those who benefited unduly from both projects can begin to repay the citizens of this country.

One would also hope that processes in our courts allow for a judge to question the relevance of evidence, in which case, Judge Thokozile Masipa should take full advantage and attempt to reduce this trial to evidence only relevant to the State’s case.

If not, it is only when this case eventually ends that the taxpayer will come to discover that it has joined the list of the many expenses that go unchecked – the State’s case against apartheid-era secret biological weapons specialist, “Dr Death” Wouter Basson, which ran into millions of rand, the 2010 World Cup stadiums and roads, and many others.

* Pinky Khoabane is a writer, author and columnist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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