When disaster strikes, like an unexpected and devastating worldwide pandemic, it is inevitable that there will be at least a handful of people who try to profit off everyone else’s loss. In South Africa it was more than a handful who saw opportunity when the rest could only see grief.
This week the Special Investigating Unit revealed that it is investigating 658 companies that may have profited unfairly from the Covid-19 crisis. Together those companies raked in over R5-billion — money that could have been better spent plugging some of the many leaks that have imperilled South Africa’s democracy.
But not all of the people who managed to get a slice of the Covid-19 procurement pie were the corruption masterminds South Africans have become used to seeing paraded at the Zondo commission. Not all of them come from ANC political dynasties and there is no straight line that can be drawn between them and the office of the presidency.
Among the long lists of people who profited from the crisis are ordinary South Africans who saw a chance to get in on the tenders game, some of them for the very first time.
Did they know what they were getting themselves into, that state procurement is often a dirty, corrupt enterprise? Probably.
Does this necessarily make them bad people? No.
But it would be naive to think that anyone on the government’s Covid-19 tender lists put their names forward out of selfless, civic duty.
Because by now everyone knows where the rot lies. And most have at least browsed some of the many playbooks — written by the protagonists of the arms deal, the Gupta and Bosasa sagas — that outline exactly how to take advantage of the rot.
This, unfortunately, is the legacy of state capture, which has the country’s tender system at its centre.
In a submission to Parliament, trade union federation Cosatu warned that the government’s procurement system is fundamentally flawed and “not designed to mitigate fraud and abuse”.
In many ways this system seems to have been designed to do the exact opposite: to allow corruption to seep into every corner of the state, affecting even the quality of the water we drink.
But perhaps worst of all, because South Africans have had to suffer this corruption for so long now, it has blurred the line between wrong and right, perhaps even irrevocably so.