Editorial: Right to cry over R9m in spilt milk

As we report this week, the North West health department destroyed R7-million's worth of powdered milk intended for babies under six months old. (Lauren Mulligan, The Times)

As we report this week, the North West health department destroyed R7-million's worth of powdered milk intended for babies under six months old. (Lauren Mulligan, The Times)

Late last year, the auditor general noted about R30-billion in wasteful and fruitless expenditure on the part of state bodies. By comparison, the R9-million thrown away by the North West province's health department is not much. But it's still a lot to waste. And it's the relatively small amounts such as these, a few million here, a few million there, that add up to the billions in fruitless expenditure noted by the auditor general.

As we report this week, the North West health department destroyed R7-million's worth of powdered milk intended for babies under six months old; the destruction of the milk cost the department a further R2-million. The department acquired the milk powder just as the national health ministry was advocating breastfeeding as the first choice, with powdered milk to be made available only when mothers were unable to breastfeed. It was obviously not paying attention to what the health minister was saying – and that's the first problem. It's all very well to have good national policies, but it's pointless if the provinces don't follow the minister's lead.

Magome Masike, the North West MEC for health, says he doesn't know how this utter waste of R9-million happened. He certainly isn't taking responsibility for it himself. He does, though, diagnose the underlying problem – "fiscal dumping". By this he means that civil servants who haven't spent the money allocated to their departments by the treasury don't want to be seen to have not spent the money, so they'd rather hide that by simply throwing it away – or, in this case, and more complicatedly, spending it on something they don't need and then dumping that.

It's simply absurd – even more absurd than textbooks not getting to schoolchildren because of muddles and incompetence. This isn't even incompetence; it's deliberate waste, and we'd go so far as to say it's fraudulent too.

Fiscal dumping is generally treated as a bookkeeping problem by the auditor general and the government. We would argue, on the contrary, that such destruction of public funds should be viewed as a serious offence. It should be punishable. Monitoring this money-dumping could be a barometer with which to measure the performance of accounting officers – directors general and heads of departments – as well as political heads.

It is unacceptable that state officials keep their jobs after failing to spend so much of their allocated budgets (which they calculated and requested in the first place), while creating the impression that there is no money to pay for basic necessities and to meet the needs of poor people.

This defrauds both taxpayers and the poor. Officials being unable to spend the money they asked for is a sign of incompetence and poor leadership – and it is exacerbated if they then dump the unused funds.

When Jacob Zuma came to power in 2009, he appointed a minister to monitor and assess the performance of Cabinet ministers and provincial premiers and MECs. For the first time, a South African president asked his ministers to sign performance agreements – and, in a country of barely accountable underperformers, this seemed a good idea.

But what happened to those contracts? We need to revisit that process to provide some form of accountability after a fiasco such as North West's great milk dump – and to stop such wastage in the future.

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