Despite Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s very public promises to fight the scourge of the looting public funds and procurement corruption during the Covid-19 pandemic, his department is refusing to reveal details of politically connected companies that have milked the system.
In Parliament, Mboweni said it is clear that, in some cases, accounting officers have flouted the treasury’s emergency procurement instructions by disregarding the maximum pricing for personal protective equipment (PPE), and increased prices by as much as 800%.
On Wednesday the presidency announced the cabinet’s decision to appoint a committee of ministers, including Mboweni, to deal with allegations of corruption associated with the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
And late on Thursday, the cabinet released a statement saying that all government departments would be expected to submit all procurement contracts awarded during this period to this ministerial team to be published and made accessible to the public.
At least one civic organisation, the Right2Know Campaign, has labelled this as lip service — nothing new and also described the Cabinet as an enabler of corruption that permeates all levels of government.
“This, unfortunately, has been the experience of all civic society over the years … We are dealing with a government that is reluctant to divulge information related to potential corruption and misuse of public finances,” Dale McKinley, the campaign’s Gauteng co-ordinator, said.
“The only reason you’re seeing this increased outrage now is because we’re in a public-health crisis.”
McKinley added that although the government had very good laws on public procurement, its implementation was bad. “We, either as media or civic society, can’t track it,” he said. “Their rationale for hiding information is confidentiality [but] the public has a constitutional right to know.”
Since April, the Mail & Guardian has battled all the way up to treasury’s highest office, director general Dondo Mogajane, in a bid to get details of payments made to politically exposed companies that made the news for benefiting from public procurement linked to Covid-19.
The latest inquiry this week related to companies owned by self-styled amaBhaca king, Thandisizwe Diko, the husband of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko. On Tuesday the treasury also rejected the M&G’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) application relating to Mioca BnB. This is a business operated by the daughter of Eastern Cape roads and transport MEC Weziwe Tikana.
The company was thrust into the public spotlight early on the pandemic, when it was alleged that residents from the Chris Hani district municipality were taken there for accommodation without any procurement process, and without an inspection of the property.
Both these applications were rejected and the M&G was referred to provincial departments that made the procurement, which responded with the same confidentiality excuse used by the national treasury. Efforts to clarify this with chief procurement officer Estelle Setan, drew blanks.
This week, treasury revealed that national and provincial departments had spent up to R10-billion on PPE, as Mboweni and Mogajane sought to convince Parliament’s portfolio committee they were going to tighten Covid-19 procurement controls to avoid further graft.
Chair of the standing committee on finance, Yunus Carrim, asked this week for some indication of action taken by the treasury against accounting officers who have flouted the process.
“We all want more action from national treasury … We are not asking for any names. But are there any actions already under way to use the PFMA [Public Finance Management Act] and the MFMA [Municipal Finance Management Act]?”
Mogajane said the treasury has not yet received direct reports of accounting officers “who have been taken to task … This definitely will come … And, if there are any deviations from price lists, we expect accounting officers to take responsibility … All we hear now is anecdotes.”
Mogajane did refer to the Gauteng Covid-19 tenders scandal, saying: “The provincial treasury head of Gauteng must be held accountable. We will ask questions. They must answer.”
This week Mogajane told the M&G that each province had been allocated its own budget on Covid-19 procurement and that it was up to the provinces to make the information available.
In response to the Mail & Guardian questions sent on Thursday, national treasury said the Protection of Personal Information Act, as well as the central supplier database, prohibited it from making information related to state procurement public. It also said the public has not been denied any right to access information.
“National treasury is working with other organs of state in dealing with reported Covid-19 corruption related matters. This is work coordinated with other institutions, and when the processes are finalised they will be made available to the public.”
The Eastern Cape, one of the hotspots for procurement irregularities during the lockdown, has also refused to reveal the details of its own Covid-19 procurement.
This is at a time when the province had difficulty with installing oxygen points in hospitals, as well as providing sufficient beds to deal with a spike in Covid-19-related hospitalisations and PPE for healthcare workers.
On Wednesday, the Gauteng provincial government presented its Covid-19 plan to Parliament’s co-operative governance and traditional affairs committee. MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi said the Gauteng government has given the Special Investigating Unit between four and six weeks to go through the province’s accounts.
“We are pleading for patience here … Within six weeks we will be in a position to share with you that information,” Lesufi said.
“But if you want us to share … now, it is going to be practically impossible … It’s a process that will need to be sorted out and concluded. And we need experts. We need people who have the legislative mandate and the power to investigate these accounts.”
But acting health MEC Jacob Mamabolo assured MPs that the provincial government will conduct a “quick internal audit” this week on the effectiveness of existing procurement controls.
The Western Cape treasury last week became the only province that released its procurement disclosure report, which detailed the companies that were paid for the procurement of PPE.