Those who designed the ethics architecture did not envisage the possibility that the ethical system in its entirety would be compromised, says the writer. File picture: Steve Buissinne/Pixabay
Those who designed the ethics architecture did not envisage the possibility that the ethical system in its entirety would be compromised, says the writer. File picture: Steve Buissinne/Pixabay

How state institutions were looted and how we can prevent it happening again

By Fazela Mahomed Time of article published Feb 14, 2020

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Despite a myriad laws, regulations and institutions, South Africa was unable to prevent rampant and systematic corruption. Existing anti-corruption and ethics measures were not able to withstand the pressures imposed by powerful individuals in the system to prevent wide-scale corruption.

In fact, many of the checks and balances within the ethics framework were used for corrupt ends. In the end, an ethical system is as good as the people who administer it.

The corrupt networks in South Africa did not operate in an ad-hoc and arbitrary manner. It was systematic and had, at their core, the strategic placement of corrupt individuals to counter the ethics framework. There was a template for this systematic corruption.

At its core were highly placed executive members who undermined all checks for good governance. Poor political oversight of the executive by Parliament was an important feature of the system.

The next measure in the corrupt machinery was the control of the boards, in the case of state-owned enterprises. In order for the corrupt system to work, there was a need to undermine all accountability mechanisms. Key political positions were captured. In many cases, board appointees were part of the corrupt conspiracy.

The next level of appointees, senior officials like chief executive officers, director generals, chief financial officers and chief operating officers were replaced with individuals who were in cahoots with those corrupt syndicates.

The chief executive officer/director general, supported by the board or minister, drove the corrupt agenda, the chief operating officer implemented, the chief financial officer and procurement people were co-opted to approve sham procurement processes.

The human resource managers were used as a punitive tool to ensure that the institutional culture was one of fear and those who spoke up were removed.

Fundamental to this process was the undermining of openness and transparency in the institution.

Those who designed the ethics architecture did not envisage the possibility that the ethical system in its entirety would be compromised, to the extent that oversight by executive members, Parliament, boards, senior management in entities, would form a corrupt syndicate to enrich a few individuals.

Other measures of check and review, like external auditors and banks, were complicit.

Organisations with the capacity to investigate wrongdoing were rendered ineffective through political interference and through the appointment of people who were intent on protecting corrupt individuals.

What worked in the battle against corruption?

Individuals with integrity spoke up against the wrongdoing, whistle-blowers and media provided information to ensure that the alarm was sounded. Civil society and South Africa spoke up against corruption. The constitution was upheld through the judiciary and a public demand for consequences and sanctions.

In considering the way forward, some thought should be given to whether the corruption will be replicated in the future.

Other countries have successfully tackled corruption and provide some lessons. In the 1970s, Hong Kong established the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in response to rampant corruption. The ICAC had a three-prong focus: strategic investigations, corruption prevention and education.

The investigation department focussed on complaints and enforcement of the law. The corruption prevention department was given authority to advise government departments.

The ICAC could review processes in organisations it deemed at risk. Alternatively, organisations could ask the ICAC to review their processes. The ICAC would meet regularly with heads of government departments to discuss corruption prevention.

The risk factors for corruption were misuse of power and discretionary authority, neglect of duty or omission, favouritism, administrative deviations and breaches of regulations, inappropriate legislation, information and confidentiality breaches and conflicts of interest.

The prevention system also assisted with identifying risk factors relating to internal controls, discrepancies or deviations in implementing remedial action and reporting on management deviations.

The education programme involved training government officials on ethics, code of conduct. It is crucial to building an ethos of ethical decision making in government. Ethical conduct should be the norm.

What can be done in South Africa?

Corrupt individuals must be prosecuted. This will build public trust. For this to happen, the investigative authorities must be given resources to effectively fulfil their functions.

The Public Service Commission’s constitutional mandate is to build an ethical public service and at this time it must be more assertive and develop a corruption prevention unit which actively prioritises ending corruption, as is reported in the Hong Kong project.

It must also ensure that public servants who face pressure to act improperly are supported.

A national public anti-corruption campaign should be launched to enable the public to understand the role of elected representatives, the codes of conduct which bind them and the system to make complaints. The appropriate authorities must follow up on every public complaint.

Parliament must move beyond party loyalty to be the effective voice of the people. It bears the constitutional responsibility of oversight of the executive. It needs to ensure that there are sufficient checks and balances and hold the executive to account.

Finally, it is up to us - we the people of South Africa. We must ensure that as individuals we abide by all the ethical standards we expect of others.

* Mahomed is an ethics consultant. She writes in her personal capacity.

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

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