How officials are milking the state

Poorly constructed ‘born-free’ roads run through rural areas because of dodgy tenders and budget cuts resulting from bribe payments. (Theana Breugem, Gallo)

Poorly constructed ‘born-free’ roads run through rural areas because of dodgy tenders and budget cuts resulting from bribe payments. (Theana Breugem, Gallo)

Blatant demands for bribes in exchange for tenders are commonplace in Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

“You can get the tender. All you have to do is pay me the fee.” The local government official is speaking calmly, sure of himself. The office door is not closed.
A colleague pops his head in to ask whether he wants anything from the shop.

“It will be 10% of the project fee,” he continues. “But then you get immediate sign-off and you can start work.”

This explanation follows a refusal to pay a bribe. The official explains that this is the only way to get a tender. The 10% will come out of the budget – meant to supply basic services.

“It’s easy. All you have to do is put maybe less steel in the foundations, or change the cement mix. Be imaginative.”

This particular meeting happened earlier this year at a government office in Mpumalanga. The person receiving the “how-to” lecture in corruption does not want to disclose their name. Any chance of further business would be scuppered.

It is a situation apparently faced by an increasing number of people working in the service delivery sector. Four different and senior people working in Limpopo and Mpumalanga confirm that similarly blunt meetings are the norm.

Bite the bullet
“It increasingly looks like the only way to get work is to bite the bullet and pay someone for it,” says one. Another says: “Officials are so brazen these days. They will sit across a desk from you and tell you that greasing their palms is the only way you will get a tender.”

To pay this fee, money has to be taken out of the budget meant to provide the service.

The four say there are dozens of examples of this. One metre square pits for toilets are dug, meaning they are filled in a few months. Cheap quality plastic water pipes are buried in trenches that are too shallow. The earth and rocks rupture them and the water pressure drops and people do not get water. Roads are built with such a poor base that driving on the “tar bubbles” is akin to being on the sea. In Limpopo, these are known as “born-free roads” because they were built after 1994.

“What you see is that government is technically delivering,” said a service provider, who also did not want to be named.

“The people in these communities are recorded as having water and sanitation and other services because they have infrastructure. But their services do not work because so many corners are cut.”

It is hard to judge the extent of corruption on a national scale. Gareth Newman, the head of the crime and justice programme at the Institute for Security Studies, said there was a public perception that corruption was getting worse. More and more people are tired of seeing what they perceive to be graft in the public service.

The perception had increased steadily since 2008. At heart, it was as much about the scale of corruption as it was about the view that there was no accountability for corruption, he said earlier this year. 

Several studies attest to this view. The 2013 Afribarometer report, Governments Falter in Fight to Curb Corruption, found that South Africans believed their country was becoming more corrupt each year. Transparency International’s 2013 corruption perception index ranked the country 72 out of 175 in terms of corruption in the public sector. This was a drop of 34 places since 2001.

Corruption taken for granted
David Lewis, the executive chairperson of Corruption Watch, said people seemed to take it for granted that corruption was happening at all levels of government.

“Many people are working from their own experience of the civil service,” he said. “So you can see that the total lack of trust in our institutions comes from a very real place.”

People needed to believe that their political and corporate leaders would be held to account, he said. “Right now, people see the impunity with which the corrupt act.”

Public protector, Thuli Madonsela, was blunt about the issue when she addressed Parliament last year. “All that I can say to this nation and this committee is: corruption in this country has reached crisis proportions. There is no two ways about it.”

The four people working in Limpopo and Mpumalanga who spoke to Mail & Guardian this week said it was impossible to do anything about the corruption. Each of them had to compete with contractors who were even less honest for tenders. If anyone was perceived as being a whistle-blower, they would lose out in future contracts, they claimed.

One said: “What you end up with is a dilemma. Do you pay a backhander and try to do the best you can in the project with fewer resources, or do you take the high road but see the community being screwed out of their services?”


The ‘KFC scale’ for bribes

Tracing corruption is made difficult by the lack of clear financial transactions – paperwork is abhorred.

In Limpopo, for example, money is apparently handled using the “KFC scale”. Most officials do not openly talk about the sum of money they want for a tender. Instead, they say which item on the menu of the fast-food seller they would like.

Boxes that would normally be filled with chicken pieces and chips are then handed over, packed with R200 notes. People have become experts in knowing how much goes in each box. Several people said the standard size was the “Streetwise Two” meal, which amounted to about R20?000.

In 2011, Willie Hofmeyr, the former head of the Special Investigation Unit, told Parliament that up to R30-billion a year was lost because of public officials pocketing funds.

A 2012 report by the law firm Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs said the amount of documented fraud had risen from R130-million in the 2006-2007 financial year to R1-billion in the 2011-2012 financial year. The report also found that, although 88% of the public officials facing charges of financial misconduct were found guilty, only 19% lost their jobs.

A Bill aimed at stopping public servants doing business with the government, or being the director of any company doing business with the government, has been sitting in the presidency for eight months, according to a report in Business Day this week.

The Public Administration Management Bill obliges public servants to disclose their financial interests and those of any people living with them. It makes provision for offenders to be dismissed. The Bill was signed off by Parliament in March and sent to the president for final approval.

Sipho Kings

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