Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts has a new chairperson in the Inkatha Freedom Party’s (IFP’s) Mkhuleko Hlengwa and he warns that Scopa will use its new far-reaching powers.
The committee and its recommendations used to be largely ignored by parastatals and other government entities. But this year the auditor general’s new powers, which include the ability to enforce its recommendations, means it can have a telling effect on the financial health of local, provincial and national departments, state-owned entities and other bodies including Chapter 9 institutions that are allocated funds by Parliament.
Speaking two months into his appointment — on the sidelines of the annual conference of the Institute of Internal Auditors of South Africa in Johannesburg this week — Hlengwa said his visit to state-owned entities reinforced what he has learned over seven years as an IFP MP: the rot is often orchestrated and protected at the top levels of these organisations.
Former Pan-Africanist Congress and African Peoples’ Convention MP Themba Godi chaired Scopa for 14 years. Last year, Godi, who was seen as having more bite than the other portfolio committees, started issuing subpoenas to compel parastatal executives and senior civil servants and ministers to appear before it.
Hlengwa said this trend would not only continue, it would go further as Scopa gets to grips with the auditor general’s new powers.
He said these new powers should not make people forget that its work comes after the fact, likening it to a postmortem by pathologist.
“The challenge with Parliament is that portfolio committees see themselves as an extension of the executive and end up protecting those who are meant to account, not holding them into account. Then the rot sets in.”
He said this is why people are shocked when a government entity collapses, or there is an adverse finding against it. “The fundamental issue is the effectiveness of portfolio committees, which I would encourage to adopt a Scopa-like approach in their in-year oversight, their month-on-month or quarter-to-quarter reporting.”
This would ensure that problems are picked up at state utilities before they are audited by the auditor general, he said. “Thina, we come in to ask what killed the patient … We come in to do an autopsy. And the autopsy is telling us that there are deficiencies in parliamentary work.”
His call for more from committees is one of a host of positive signs coming out of the new administration, including from the speaker, Thandi Modise. She is tackling attendance apathy by Cabinet members and their oversight responsibility regarding the use of public funds in their departments.
Hlengwa said: “I’m happy that the speaker has spoken very firmly and sternly on this particular matter. I think she’s a breath of fresh air for oversight, accountability, and asserting Parliament’s role in oversight.”
In his speech at the auditors’ conference, Hlengwa said they should not be afraid to whistle-blow when their attempts to call out maladministration and malfeasance in government and companies are stifled.
Recent scandals at state companies Eskom, Transnet and SAA, and in the private sector at Steinhoff International and Tongaat Hulett have prompted questions about whether auditors can be trusted.