Nixing corruption needs practice and leadership

Post-apartheid South Africa has some of the most comprehensive legislation for controlling corruption and conflicts of interest in the world. It also has excellent legislation guaranteeing fiscal transparency and providing for the effective oversight of the management of public resources.

But the government’s anti-corruption campaign has suffered from a lack of leadership and a serial inability to implement the anti-graft systems that it has put in place.

This constitutional and institutional framework serves as a model for the rest of Africa and exceeds the provisions of many developed countries.

Yet there is a pervasive sense of denialism when it comes to translating this framework into practice. This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with high-ranking politicians and officials aligned with the ruling party.

As a rule, allegations involving these politically connected individuals are officially dismissed until successfully prosecuted in a criminal court of law.

Such was the case with former African National Congress chief whip Tony Yengeni, while the same approach is being followed with Deputy President Jacob Zuma.

This has conveniently shifted the burden of decision-making away from the Cabinet and Parliament on to an already overstretched and increasingly beleaguered prosecuting authority.

Civil codes governing the conduct of the executive and members of Parliament are either overlooked indefinitely or are only implemented once the individual concerned has been criminally convicted.

This trend has seen the emergence of a new culture of entitlement on the part of South Africa’s ex-struggle elite. Epitomised by the indignant affectations of Mo Shaik and Mac Maharaj before the Hefer commission, this goes something to the effect: “I have struggled against apartheid and I have suffered to build democracy. Consequently I am now immune from having to answer accusations of impropriety levelled by the institutions of democracy.”

This culture has built itself slowly but deliberately on the back of numerous precedents set over the past six years where the interests of the political elite have been allowed to prevail over the public interest.

At its heart is an inability or a hesitation to upset old struggle ties.

What has been required in the past seven years was the exercise of effective political leadership by the Presidency along with a decisive intervention in favour of the relevant ethical codes and prescriptions to uphold this constitutional framework. Instead, the resulting inaction has served to weaken this framework and undermine confidence in the institutions of our new democracy.

Examples abound of how this has been allowed to happen: the failure by the executive and legislative arms of government to publicly condemn Yengeni’s non-compliance with parliamentary rules and its code of ethics. Parliamentary Speaker Frene Ginwala chose to back Yengeni right up until his criminal conviction. Only then did she suggest he resign.

Then there was the dismal failure by the national government to intervene in Mpumalanga Premier Ndaweni Mahlangu’s reappointment of Steve Mabona to his Cabinet as provincial minister of safety and security.

This was after Mabona had been forced to resign for lying about his role in the issuing of a fraudulent driver’s licence to the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Baleka Kgositsile-Mbete. Mahlangu defended Mabona saying it was acceptable for politicians to lie to the public.

Allegations have recently arisen that Mabona has subsequently been involved in further questionable dealings with Positing Corporate Underwriters and Insurance (PCUIC), a company that has reportedly had several contracts with his department. The tender system (the government puts out tenders worth an estimated R180-billion a year) is emerging as an area that needs much closer policing.

Parliamentary oversight bodies and the executive itself also pay little attention to obvious conflicts of interest.

Take for instance the case of Eastern Cape minister of health Dr Bevan Goqwana, who acknowledged owning a private ambulance service while in office. He has also admitted to running a private specialist practice. Eastern Cape Premier Makhenkesi Stofile has claimed he granted authorisation for this conflict of interests, which effectively makes the premier party to a breach of the Executive Members Ethics Act. To make matters worse the premier’s wife is a director of two separate companies that have secured as many as five provincial government contracts.

Much is at stake. These are issues that affect the very foundations of our constitutional democracy.

Constitutional Court President Judge Arthur Chaskalson has pointed out that: “Corruption and maladministration are inconsistent with the rule of law and the fundamental values of our Constitution. They undermine the constitutional commitment to human dignity, the achievement of equality, the advancement of human rights and freedoms. They are the antithesis of open, accountable, democratic government required by the Constitution. If allowed to go unchecked and unpunished they will pose a serious threat to our democratic state.”

Yet President Thabo Mbeki’s term of office has been marked by an attitude of papering over the cracks when it comes to addressing allegations of corruption. Critical oversight institutions such as the Office of the Public Protector and Parliament’s Ethics Committee have followed his lead.

Disturbingly, the president has shown more enthusiasm for investigating corruption investigators, and for castigating whistle-blowers as “the fishers of corrupt men”, than for tackling prima facie allegations head-on.

If the actual abusers of public office were subject to the same rigours of official interrogation that spy allegations against the director of public prosecutions were subject to in the Hefer commission, public trust and confidence in government’s anti-corruption credentials could yet be restored.

Colm Allan is the director of the Public Service Accountability Monitor at Rhodes University

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