Corruption in government is going to cost the ANC votes

By Opinion Time of article published Apr 15, 2021

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Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

MANY South Africans doubt whether politicians and civil servants will cooperate with Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke to implement the amended Public Audit Act, which came into effect on April 1.

The legislation gives the auditor-general biting powers, which include referring “material irregularities” in the government spending of public funds to law enforcement for further investigation, taking binding remedial action against culprits and issuing a certificate of debt against guilty officials to recover public funds.

It also came into effect in the context of discouraging revelations in the latest report showing that countrywide 74% of the auditees received unqualified audit opinions on their financial statements, a slight improvement from 71% the previous year.

The report found the most common areas of non-compliance with legislation were a failure to prevent irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure as well as inadequate procurement and contract management.

It also noted the financial statements of 17 public entities were not reliable enough for financial analysis.

A problem with numbers this large that are discussed in the report is that they can so boggle the brain that they numb the shock.

These facts add merit to the doubts.

More so because all democratic governments in South Africa have fouled up in the past, but each one has fouled up in its own special way.

The inglorious history of their follies is especially noticeable in the unabated mismanagement of public finances by the Luthuli House political deployees who are either elected public representatives or appointed civil servants.

This history of mismanagement of public finances is well told, year after year, mainly in the auditor-general’s reports as an account that has the reader crying with laughter at the sheer stupidity of so many bad decisions at all spheres of government before crying out with horror at the cost.

Under government department heads and state-owned entity directors of many different complexions, we have seen a sorry succession of ignorant and/or vainglorious political heads and accounting officers squandering billions of rands and handing the bill for their failures to the taxpayer.

It is fair to emphasise that this is not a uniquely ANC-led government vice, but also extends to the DA-led coalition government in various municipalities.

However, others performing woefully under different political leadership doesn’t mean we should shrug and tolerate it when things go grossly wrong in any sphere of government, as it is the basic human rights of millions of people that are violated.

Kimi Makwetu, the former auditor-general who paved the way for the adoption and institutionalisation of this legislation, is sadly no longer with us.

He was patient and yet firm with non-compliant individuals, even though at local government level there remains such a high turn-over of officials to such an extent that there has been limited benefit yielded by the investment into training accounting officers to comply with public finance management legislation and regulations.

And so, Maluleke, as the current auditor-general, might think about producing an updated edition of the chronicle of delinquent individuals under the new legislation if their apprehension, prosecution, and conviction for mismanaging public funds depends on the political will of the same principals who deployed them into government positions.

Already, the current administration under President Cyril Ramaphosa is making a very strong bid to be the most blunder-prone regime of the modern era, due to lack of coherence and decisiveness in his leadership style and lack of political will in his party to root out corruption.

A significant aspect of this story is big decisions with vast spending implications being made in a blind rush by clueless public representatives and civil servants in a total funk, especially during election years and currently on coronavirus-related expenditure.

In any other line of work, wasting money on a colossal scale as witnessed in the last financial year would lead to immediate resignations or firings.

In the history of government blunders, the buck has often gone whizzing through the Union Buildings, Parliament, provincial legislatures, and municipal councils without ever stopping at anyone’s desk.

I am among many South Africans who have contended that the hallowed doctrine of executive accountability to legislative bodies is a myth in this country, in the face of abuse of the cadre deployment policy of the political party in government which puts political party interests ahead of everything else that is about a caring and responsive government.

Executive members and civil servants might often be expected to resign when caught in a scandal or a lie, but almost no one quits for squandering public money or presiding over policy howlers.

That is even less likely now, given this government’s notoriously cavalier attitude towards norms of accountability in an environment overshadowed by deep internal divisions in the ANC. Hopefully, Ramaphosa’s scheduled testimony on the subject to the Zondo commission will not disappoint.

Over the years, the worst that the most egregious political office-bearers in government bunglers can expect is to be quietly dropped or gently moved to a different department when a cabinet reshuffle or next round of cadre deployment comes around. Incompetence, even of the most repeated kind, is almost never punished by instant job loss. Look at the profile individuals on the candidate lists who end up in government to see the evidence.

Opponents of the ANC from all directions are now empowered to riposte that the government could support the auditor-general’s efforts to punish wayward government officials.

This could be so if the government had not squirted away so many billions on programmes that failed to deliver and coronavirus contracts that enriched their chums, more so during a period when the country struggled under an enormous debt.

The ANC leadership has always invited the voters to see them as careful custodians of the public purse and opposition parties as representatives of the privileged few, which has frequently rewarded the ANC at the ballot box, including in the by-elections. Stripped of that reputation, they are much more naked before the electorate and they will continue to lose votes.

Nyembezi is a policy analysts and a human rights activist

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