Editorial: The public has a right to know

There was a brief moment — when President Cyril Ramaphosa acted decisively and locked the country down as Covid-19 threatened — that we forgot how easily a country in crisis can become a playground for opportunists.

As economic collapse loomed, we knew that there were few tools with which to respond, thanks to systemic corruption. Despite this, we thought that the enormity of the pandemic — the possibility that tens to hundreds of thousands of people could die — would bring us together.

But looters remain looters.

So much of the state, from the governing party to our governance and service delivery structures, exists to enrich a select few. The past few months have seen at least three million jobs lost. They have also seen comrades and business leaders lining their pockets off the public health response. 

The breadth of the malfeasance has been shocking: price gouging by retailers; collusion between suppliers and bent civil servants; employers who have claimed Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme payments for their employees and keeping the money, rather than passing it on to those who earned it.

Corruption continues to taint our lives. The top government departments and the ANC have not been able to arrest the corruption and malfeasance. 

In Parliament, Tito Mboweni, the holder of the country’s purse strings, talked about accounting officers who have flouted the treasury’s emergency procurement instructions by disregarding the maximum pricing for personal protective equipment and increased prices by up to 800%. He promised that action would be taken. 

This is public money, so transparency should not be controversial. Openness is a necessity if people are to hold those they elect to account. 

But the finance department has been reluctant to provide details of corruption regarding protective equipment, which amounts to billions of rands. And though Cabinet finally said late on Thursday that the information would be released, treasury’s recalcitrance and secrecy is a worrying new trend. 

In February last year, the treasury released details of the payments for tenders given to Bosasa, totalling more than R12-billion. This was after evidence emerged that Bosasa had allegedly paid bribes to government leaders and officials, particularly at correctional services. 

Since then most requests by the media to the treasury for details about public funds and contracts issued by government have been met with the stock response that this information is private and confidential. In some instances, the treasury, which controls public funds, refers inquiries to the department, which generally ignore media inquiries. 

Transparency and accountability have lost currency in the treasury, and we are all the poorer for it.

This is how corruption thrives. 

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