Rivonia treason trialistAndrew Mlangeni has issued a stern rebuke to government on corruption. Photo: Itumeleng English.

The constitution is clear on issues of transparency and meritocracy in the hiring of personnel, writes Stan Sangweni.


Last week I listened with despair as the isithwalandwa Andrew Mlangeni addressed the media about corruption. In a short radio clip the Rivonia treason trialist issued a stern rebuke to government saying, “We did not go to prison for this.”

Mlangeni is correct – those who fought for equality and justice did so on the basis of a core set of values that specifically excluded corruption, jobs for friends, tender-rigging and so on.

It is impossible to ignore the appalling events related to the flouting of public service rules, that have been reported in the media over the last few months.

The debacle related to appointments at the national broadcaster, the renovations at the president’s private residence in Nkandla, the billion-rand procurement tender scandal in which the former MEC of health in Gauteng was involved; the list is endless.

While the circumstances of each transgression may be different and the cast of characters changes with each scandal, there is a common thread.

When you look beyond the media headlines, each story is about the shocking extent to which maladministration and malpractice involving procurement irregularities have become part of how the state increasingly seems to do business.

While all governments around the world experience some level of corruption, in our case the sheer volume of complaints and allegations, and the frequency with which they are made, point to a far deeper malaise than public officials simply being unable to understand and follow the rules.

What then, could the problem be? In my diagnosis, the root problem is that a great number of our duty-bearers simply do not appreciate the importance of the constitution. Public officers may know what is contained in it but they seem not to understand the role and the place of this document in our national life.

There is a big difference between knowing that there are rules in place to guide decision-making in respect of public monies, and understanding the gravity and weight of these rules as laid out in the constitution.

If more public officers understood that the obligation not to waste public money was a constitutional one – in addition to a moral one – perhaps they would not violate the constitutional framework with such breathtaking regularity.

It therefore bears articulating – as a refresher for those who may have forgotten – where the constitution fits in the fight against corruption.

It is in the constitution that we locate the cornerstones of national integrity and morality. Many people are familiar with the Bill of Rights and the dignity that it accords to all South Africans.

But it is easy to forget that the constitution also promulgates the basic values and principles governing public administration.

These include the maintenance of a high standard of ethical conduct; efficiency, effectiveness and economy in resource use.

The constitution is also clear on the importance of transparency and meritocracy in personnel practices. This last point lays the foundation for ensuring that public servants are hired on the basis of ability, objectivity and fairness.

It is common cause that these principles constitute the tenants of our national integrity and morality on matters of governance.

It should therefore be clear to those who administer the public service that these issues were not intended to be taken lightly.

The constitution is the supreme law of the land and therefore its abrogation it is a grievous violation. And yet, on a daily basis those whose job it is to preserve the integrity and functionality of our supreme law either neglect their duty to protect it or deliberately turn a blind eye to wrongdoings.

The SABC saga is a case in point. The recently confirmed chief operating officer (COO) is known to have falsified his qualifications.

One would like to give those who in their wisdom, decided to appoint him in spite of this, the benefit of the doubt and assume they used the constitutional integrity and morality framework in making their decision about the position.

But, given this, would a falsified matriculation certificate pass the ethical conduct test? Would it pass the meritocracy test?

At the level of the minister, who, if reports are correct, played a key role in attesting to the COO’s suitability for the job, the question arises also: would a testimonial of excellent performance that has not been subjected to any rigorous analysis, pass the ethical conduct test? Would it be able to stand up to the transparency and meritocracy tests of objectivity?

It is painfully obvious that neither the SABC board, nor the minister nor the portfolio committee measured up to the imperatives enshrined in Section 195 of the constitution.

Perhaps it is time to rethink our strategy for addressing corruption. We might begin by noting that there is no specific reference in the constitution to “fighting corruption”. Indeed, the word “corruption” is not mentioned anywhere at all in the constitution.

The authors of our constitution knew that corruption would not thrive in an environment of integrity and morality and so they put their focus on building a preventative culture, rather than on addressing the disease once its symptoms had already set it.

As a result, the mandate in the constitution is categorically stated as “to promote values and principles set out in section 195 throughout the public service”. The constitution correctly puts its emphasis on integrity and morality.

It is troubling therefore that even the authors of our National Development Plan have decided to dedicate an entire chapter to “Promoting Accountability and Fighting Corruption”.

If the intention of our leaders is to restore our badly ravaged national integrity and morality, then we will fall short if we focus only on accountability over the next 30 years.

It is short-sighted to shift our emphasis from the major task of fostering and building national integrity and morality in pursuit of a populist but short-term strategy of emphasising “accountability”.

We should change the narrative from one that is about the symptoms to one that is focused on the difficult long-term work of “building and nurturing integrity and morality” as enshrined in the constitution.

This requires a culture shift and a more robust and comprehensive response to the current crisis that plagues us.

There are many technical solutions that one could introduce to begin to address corruption in the public service. One is to raise the personal cost of non-compliance with the constitution by including it as an issue of ministerial service contracts.

Another is to establish an anti-corruption commission. Because the criminal justice system – the Hawks, the NPA and so on – are not designed to deal with the soft human dimensions of corruption, this might provide some much-needed attention.

Underlying these ideas however, is my firm belief that we must begin by building ethics, not by “fighting corruption”.

By the time we are talking about corruption, the battle for the hearts and minds of public officials has long been lost.


* Professor Sangweni is the retired Chairperson of the Public Service Commission. He was the first Chair in the democratic dispensation, and held this position for a period of 15 years.

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

Sunday Independent