Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke says the country’s democracy could only flourish and fulfil the aspirations and dreams of those it was meant to serve when it was backed and reinforced by accountability.
Addressing the UCT Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture, Maluleke said she represented the institution tasked with supporting the country’s democracy through auditing of public funds.
“This puts a massive responsibility on our shoulders, to meaningfully contribute towards building a capable state with capable institutions that are effective in fulfilling their mandate in a transparent and accountable manner,” she said.
Maluleke told her audience that accountability and democracy shine on each other.
The auditor-general said the numbers, figures and data were not just abstract signifiers on a balance sheet but have a human face.
“They stand for the hopes and dreams of individuals, the prospect of a tomorrow in which their constitutionally protected rights to security, shelter, healthcare and education are everyday realities, rather than distant ideals,” she said.
“They signify the extent to which individuals have the opportunity to realise their full potential. They stand for the health and wealth of nations.”
Maluleke also said they still have a duty to ensure the integrity of the profession is preserved, protected and upheld in the rigour of practise.
“We must appreciate that our licence to serve society is founded on the trust that society places in us. Society expects us to serve its interests with utmost integrity and accountability.”
Maluleke said they could not allow accountancy to become complicit in its own corruption.
“We cannot allow accountancy to facilitate, enable, or turn a blind eye to malfeasance in the management of public money,” she said.
“When that happens, hopes and aspirations wither on the vine. Dreams turn to dust,” Maluleke said.
She noted the failures by KPMG, black-owned auditing firm Nkonki, among others, as well as the State Capture Commission providing more than enough evidence for concluding that the accountancy profession was implicated.
“These are a few examples that remain our national shame, and we will continue to live in their shadow for generations to come.”
Referring to the cost of state capture, Maluleke said it was hard to say with certainty, but there is a figure that came via the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, who commissioned a study by Stellenbosch University, into the depth of corruption in South Africa.
“That figure is one-and-a-half trillion rand lost to our country between 2014 and 2019 alone. To put that into perspective, this is money that could fund the country’s developmental agenda.”
She noted that state capture has a direct impact on the lives of all South Africans.
“We think of the state as having been captured, but in truth, it is you and I, the citizenry, everyone who holds a stake in the future of this nation, whose hopes and dreams have been held hostage.
“In the public service, where we audit, it is the failure to improve people’s lives and the derailing of their democratic aspirations that bear the most eloquent testimony to the consequences of capture.”
Maluleke said her office was mindful of their mandate to serve the public interest, to act independently, without fear or favour, and to continue to play our vital role in the accountability value chain.
She also said her office was empowered in law through the amended Public Audit Act that came into effect in 2019.
“The amendment introduced a concept of material irregularity, which was borne out of the failure to address audit findings that were tabled year or year by the auditor-general.”
Maluleke said the new law was not a system designed to be punitive.
“It is a system designed to encourage accountability and clean governance. These can only be achieved if the correct preventative controls or checks and balances are put in place to prevent losses, wastage, and any wrongdoing with public funds.”
She, however, insisted that it did not empower her to “take people to jail”, but rather to enforce corrective actions where preventative controls have failed. “It comes after the effect and therefore does not replace acting proactively and preventatively.
“This is a system that should not be feared. It is a system that should be embraced in the interest of clean governance.”
Asked about the safety of the auditors in her office, Maluleke said they worry all the time about threats to their staff.
She said they collaborate with SAPS and institutions they audit to identify and mitigate risk as well as safeguard the staff.
When asked if she did not fear her office could come under attack for carrying out its work, Maluleke said she had embraced the idea to do their work better so that they become less popular.
“We will continue to do that work without fear or favour. If it happens I would hope South Africans will be the first people to push back and ensure our staff are not threatened and the institution is not put under pressure.”