Shooting fish in a barrel

Last Monday should have been formally named “National Corruption Day” or perhaps, better, “Corruption Awareness Day”—which has the advantage of an appealingly apt acronym.

I had more sympathy with President Thabo Mbeki than most other commentators when he spoke a few months ago of the “fishers of corrupt men”. He was pointing out in his inimitable style that there are plenty of people desperate to uncover corruption so as to affirm their own prejudice against the new South Africa.

But Monday’s haul represented not so much a few bites as a trawler load. The front page lead in one daily reported that, faced by contradictory evidence, the parliamentary ethics committee was deeply divided over how to deal with Deputy President Jacob Zuma’s non-disclosure of what he claims are a series of loans, not gifts.

Another daily led with news of former African National Congress MP Andrew Feinstein’s startling allegation that the ANC received a $35-million inducement from the SAAB/BAE consortium that won the contract to supply Gripen fighter jets.

In the Cape, former Western Cape premier Peter Marais and his former provincial minister of environmental affairs, David Malatsi, faced Day One of their trial on corruption charges for accepting a bribe from Italian millionaire CountRiccardo Agusta (for which the count has already accepted guilt).

Meanwhile, Mohammed Valli Moosa returned R100 000 to a donor, Charles Cornwall, who had “bought” a day with the ANC Cabinet minister at a recent fund-raising auction held by the organisation. Now I know that Moosa is terrific company, especially after some refreshment on the rocks, but even if I was very wealthy I am not sure I would want to spend a whole day with him unless I had the need for an unfettered opportunity to lobby him. And, as it happens, it turns out that Mr Cornwall is the owner of a controversial polo estate development. Hence the return of the money. A smart move Mr Moosa.

So, as I say, it was a busy day on the corruption front. I am an ineptly impatient angler, but this was like shooting fish in a barrel. And I haven’t even mentioned the amateur dramatics of the Bloemfontein matinée idols—Mac and Mo.

There are two responses. The first is to get depressed. The second is to celebrate the fact that we know about it, that institutions are in place to deal with it, that a free press is able to report on it and that the public can make an informed choice in response.

Indeed, it was not all bad news. For it was also the day the African Christian Democratic Party became the first South African political party to open its books and disclose its recent private donors. Admittedly, even the highest of the three donations above R20 000 that the party has received since 1999—R100 000, or a “Valli” as it should from now on be known—would only get them a day with the minister of environmental affairs and tourism. But it was nonetheless a commendable step; a case of putting their money where their mouth has been and setting a benchmark precedent for other parties to match.

The fundamental concept that binds all of these cases is conflict of interest—the conflict, or potential conflict, between a public duty and a private interest. Of the institutions created since 1994 to counter this potentially prolific demon, the Register of Members’ Interests in Parliament is the leading light.

Driven hard by its first and founding chairperson, Kader Asmal, in 1996 the ethics committee put in place a code of conduct that, despite imperfections, is standing the test of time—though key people involved in the committee’s work consider that it is not getting the good press it deserves. They cite the reaction to the decision of the committee to fine Mosiuoa Patrick Lekota “only” R15 000.

Lekota’s case was far less serious than those of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Tony Yengeni, and not least because of his willingness to cooperate with the committee and admit to his negligence in failing to disclose some pretty menial share-holdings. Insiders are anxious for the media to convey that the committee’s operation is not limited to the narrow issue of whether the MP disclosed or not and what punishment they received.

There is a wider purpose. Sources close to the committee point to what they believe is the central point of the code: to root out and drive from public life those who are dishonest and reckless about the intrusion of their private interests amid their public duties.

While in the cases of Madikizela-Mandela and Yengeni it may be that their departures from Parliament had far more to do with their criminal trials, in the case of the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mandla Msomi it is clear that the committee’s investigation into his apparent sale of inside information while chairperson of the public enterprises portfolio committee prompted him to fall on his sword and leave Parliament of his own volition.

For three years after Asmal, the chairperson was the deceptively unassuming Sister Bernard Ncube. Contrary to her gentle public disposition and diffident chairing of the committee, in private, and in the ANC caucus in particular, she was firm in her conviction that MPs should cooperate with the committee or suffer the consequences. One intervention in caucus, apparently made in the presence of Mbeki, was especially telling in the case of Yengeni who tried, but failed, to bully her into submission.

The code is taken seriously in Parliament. While education about the code is still inadequate, the most effective inducement to comply comes from seeing the fate of peers who are caught out. The committee has been diligently served since 1997 by the same Registrar, Fazela Mahomed, who, although a “servant” of the committee, has been allowed to develop increasingly independent investigative capacity and authority.

The committee’s outside perception problem—if that is what it is—may derive from the inter-linked failure to communicate properly the work of the committee and the purpose of the code, and the apparent new default position of the committee to meet in closed session.

When Asmal was chairperson it was agreed that the committee should always meet in open session unless the inquiry would so prejudice a member that secrecy was necessary. The new chairperson of the committee, ANC MP Luwellyn Landers, spent a good deal of time on the select committee on intelligence and its more appropriately secretive modus operandi may have ingrained itself in Landers’s approach. He needs to revisit the matter and return to the original policy.

A revised code that is far more explicit about conflict of interest and its centrality to the anti-corruption strategy is also under consideration. Equally important, it envisages new provisions designed to deal with what is known as post-tenure employment.

Currently the rules only apply to MPs while they are in Parliament. When they leave the club they remove themselves from sanction. Often an inducement is offered in the form of fat directorships or deals after leaving public office. As the arms deal inquiry also concluded, that is a gap that must be filled.

This week offered an expansive window on the nature and range of the corruption landscape. Thankfully, there is a lot more that meets the eye than Mac and Mo.

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