Editorial: Terence Nombembe – a model civil servant

He is described as soft-spoken and gentle, but he has conducted his constitutional duty with relentless efficiency and has been unafraid to speak bad news to power – and to speak it again, a year later, if necessary. Terence Nombembe, South Africa's auditor general since 2006, ends his term at the end of this month, and there can be few office bearers who are so universally admired across the political spectrum.

He is, indeed, the very model of what a conscientious civil servant in a modern democratic state should be, though he is, of course, a pretty independent one – he does not work for any particular minister, but rather, as it were, directly for the Constitution.

The idea that Nombembe might participate in the new school of governance planned by public service minister Lindiwe Sisulu, as mooted at a recent dinner for the AG, is attractive: the minister's elder brother, Speaker Max Sisulu, said Nombembe had, besides his formal duties, been a great teacher of others in state service. Apart from his professional skill and integrity, Nombembe has personal qualities that encourage one to see him in such a role: he apparently also finds time to lead a Sunday school class.

It's worth recalling some of what Nombembe has told the government recently. Just last month, at a commemoration of the "Black Wednesday" bannings of 1977, he went through some of the problems he has faced in holding state departments accountable for their budgets. He expressed his concern that there did not seem to be sufficient state reaction to his reports, especially those "disclaimers" in which the AG is forced to write that there was insufficient information from the department concerned to be able to make a finding.

That's bad news – worse, in a way, than the overall figure of 22% given as the proportion of state entities for which the AG was able to provide a "clean" audit. Nombembe said the department of public works, for one, consistently fails to account properly for itself, and this is the department at the centre of the row over huge state expenditure on the president's personal residential complex at Nkandla. That may not be the worst example of misappropriation of funds in our history, but it's a flagship instance. The AG put it clearly: "We should not have a situation whereby there is no know-ledge of where money was spent by any government entity or departments."

Nombembe did not seem particularly optimistic about improving government performance in this area of accountability when he presented his March report. After all, the number of state bodies that failed his assessment was growing. But there were some areas of improvement, and what he had to say about those is important: "It is evident from this year's results that audit outcomes only improved in areas where the leadership adopted a hands-on approach to addressing shortcomings in their respective portfolios," he said.

Which is a nice way of saying that leaders must lead – something Nombembe himself has shown us, by example.

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