Doing business with government: The double-dipping bind

The Democratic Alliance (DA) on Wednesday called for Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to support the opposition party's Bill to ban public servants from doing business with government.

But government started building momentum for its campaign to clean up the civil service months ago and some said it was opportunistic for the DA to begin asking the state to support its Bill over other processes, such as an amendment to the Public Services Act suggested by Sisulu, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan's commitment to complement the initiative by aligning the Public Finance Management Act with its provisions, and Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel's new development plan, which also spoke extensively on inefficient and corrupt bureaucrats.

Moloto Mothapo, spokesperson for the ANC chief whip, questioned the timing of the DA's proposal given that the Sisulu already talked about interventions and legislation that could address the problem.

"The minister has announced publicly measures to address this scourge of corruption among public servants in terms of conflicts of interest and doing business with the state, and we have expressed our full support of those initiatives," he said.

Mothapo said the DA was being opportunistic and was attempting to put out its Bill before Sisulu "as if it's some sort of competition".

"We will not support duplication," he said.

'Insider trading'
But earlier in March the DA's parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said that one of the reasons why the party decided to put forward its own Bill was that similar legislation from the ministry of public works, although long promised, failed to materialise.

The opposition party's call for Sisulu to support its Bill came after the minister last week reiterated plans to clean up the civil service and her determination that public servants would no longer be allowed to do business with the state. Sisulu referred to the practice as "the kind of double-dipping, insider trading that is unethical".

This week saw two other high profile officials – Manuel and auditor general Terence Nombembe – make similar calls.

Speaking at an economic summit on Monday, Manuel said the country would need to fix its civil service if it was to prosper. The national development plan, which government has embraced as a blueprint for growth and development up to 2030, was built on the idea of a "capable state" in which public servants have the necessary skills to fulfill their roles and did not do business with the state.

On Tuesday day the auditor general released a damning report on the country's national and provincial audit outcomes, which showed that just one in five state entities received clean audits in the last financial year.

Nombembe's report also showed that last year, nearly R600-million in tenders were awarded to suppliers linked to employees of the relevent departments and that in some cases senior managers were responsible for the awards.

'A bit of politicking'
Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, said it was clear that the DA wanted to position itself as a reformist party that has citizens' interests at heart.

"It will be a bit of a politicking exercise in which both parties will claim that they're the one that's more serious about it," he said. "[But] the question is whether something is done about the problem and not who does it."

The DA's Bill appeared to be focused very narrowly on state officials who engaged in corrupt practices but Friedman said it was important to recognise that corruption was not just a public sector problem.

"Very often corruption is about a particular relationship between the public and private sector. Labour also need to be part of the solution because there are also members of labour unions who are also affected by this," he said.

"If other interest groups are prepared to come to the party you could start seeing serious attempts to deal with the problem. It obviously will not have massive impacts immediately but over time will have an effect." 

Gordhan also highlighted this point in February when he spent considerable time during his budget speech talking about corruption in government.

'Special effort'
In his speech Gordhan admitted that combatting corruption was "a difficult task with too many points of resistance".

"As much as I want, I cannot simply wave a magic wand to make these problems disappear. This is going to take a special effort from all of us in government, assisted by people in business and broader society. And it will take time. But we are determined to make progress," he said in his speech.

Gordhan, Manuel and Nombembe were just the latest in a long line of high-ranking officials to denounce the unethical behaviour that keeps making billions of rands of public money disappear into the pockets of state employees each year.

In November last year the Public Services Commission also called for public servants to be barred from doing business with the state after it found an alarming increase in the cost of financial misconduct.

According to the commission, in 2008/09, financial misconduct cost the state R100-million. The next year, the figure more than tripled to R346-million. Then in 2010/11 it almost tripled again, to stand at R932-million.

'Culture of no consequences'
The commission's director general Richard Levin complained of a "culture of no consequences" and said he hoped the number would not hit a R1-billion the following year.

Despite the calls for a shake up in the public service but converting this into action will be easier said than done.

David Lewis, executive director of anti-corruption advocacy group Corruption Watch, said there was a huge difference between having a party outline what needed to be in a Bill and drafting a Bill that's constitutional, allowed people to comment on it and dealt with the reaction from the public service.

"What is certain is that this is going to encounter major pushback from people in the public service, from ministers, from certain members of Cabinet, and from people in the private sector who are well served by this. This is not going to be an easy thing to go through," he said.

"None of this should prevent the passage of the Bill but I don't doubt [it will be] difficult to deal with. It's so important and it needs to be done."

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