/ 7 June 2020

The corruption virus weakens public trust in the government

Gauteng's new premier
Gauteng's new premier

The government has had a bewilderingly muted response to alarm bells being raised about general and Covid-19-related corruption. Angst is growing among civil society organisations and the public at large as the scourge continues amid the deadly pandemic facing South Africa.

Surely the government would not be oblivious to the negative effect graft would have on its efforts to manage this unprecedented public health emergency? Then again, corruption is entrenched in our political, bureaucratic and private spheres and despite the outcries against it by public representatives — from the president to his ministers — organised business and trade unions, corruption continues unabated.

The argument is therefore that the government will not act against its own officials and politicians and the complicit private sector. Buying into this perspective is exactly what corruption beneficiaries want from us — to feel overwhelmed, forced to sit silently in our little corners and not concern ourselves with such societal issues. This would be a pity if allowed to persist, for we know that corruption is spreading just like a deadly virus, robbing many people of their current and future livelihoods.

We should not forget that the new administration promised us a clean, transparent and responsive government even before it took over two years ago. It’s a promise many of us believed in. More recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa again vowed that the government would “act very strongly against any attempts at corruption”. He declared during a public address in March that “special units of the National Prosecuting Authority [will] be put together to act immediately and arrest those against whom we find evidence of corruption”.

So, encouraged by the president’s words, civil society organisations have written to him with powerful suggestions of how this undertaking could be achieved. But, what does the president do? He plays for touch by kicking the ball straight into the bureaucratic milieu, which is not renowned for its efficiency.

Why not take it to the highly efficient National Command Council, Mr President? Why not instruct ministers to give the public regular feedback on reported concerns of corruption? It is this seemingly indifferent attitude that harkens back to the dark days of the previous administration where, as revealed by the Zondo Commission and other investigations, law firms, auditors, banks, local and international consulting firms, politicians and government officials were all on the take.

It is now well-known that Ramaphosa is caught in a political Catch-22. He is trying to reconcile ideological tricksters who dismiss corruption as a manifestation of a white-controlled economy with the rational few who are agitating for a clean-up while simultaneously placating a society disconcerted about the status-quo.

The past two years of his administration has made it clear that speaking through both sides of the mouth is not cutting it anymore.

One does not get a sense that the government takes this corruption crisis seriously.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura promised in 2014 at the Anti-Corruption Summit that he would “build an activist, responsive and clean government” that acts against corrupt government and business officials.

He followed up his assurances with the launch of an Ethics and Anti-Corruption Advisory Council with much fanfare in 2017, lining up the who’s who in the integrity community as its members. We have heard extraordinarily little about what these efforts have achieved.

This week Makhura had to defend himself against accusations of tender irregularities related to personal protective equipment.

The North West province is where fears of reprisals for exposing corruption loom large. The province is under administration because of widespread maladministration under the leadership of former premier Supra Mahumapelo.

Investigations by the province’s premier, Job Mokgoro, reveal that the misdemeanours were hidden in a poverty alleviation project Mahumapelo called “Setsokotsane”. The premier’s office, which the Hawks have raided, controlled the project and the associated dodgy procurement of products and services.

Low-level government officials with ringside access to the madness that was Setsokotsane have all too often seen how the politically-connected splash their ill-gotten gains on posh cars and over vanities such as nose jobs or international junkets or how they funnelled them into investments in fast-food restaurants, petrol stations and farms. They, however, speak in hushed tones about the happenings out of fear of reprisals.

Even as the government moved to alleviate hunger during lockdown, reports of partisan distribution of food parcels surfaced. The food parcel scandal involving Mahumapelo’s associate, former social development MEC Hoffman Galeng, and many other allegations, remind us of the callousness of some of those occupying top positions. They further give substance to the belief that the former premier still has the province in his grip.

Such developments across three spheres of government have exposed a missing link in government’s anti-corruption repertoire: action. If a lot has been achieved as government claims, then it must show us the proof. The public deserves to know. Shouldn’t the government be flooding the media with success stories? This inaction, both real and perceived, could destroy the fragile trust the government has worked so hard to rebuild.

It is important for the government to be seen taking stern action against graft. A bold and far-reaching anti-corruption campaign must be clearly communicated to give the public confidence that thievery and thuggery will be mercilessly dealt with.

Regaining public trust will give those with information about corrupt activities the courage to speak up. They will be reassured that action will be taken and that they will be protected.

Solomon Makgale is an independent communications consultant