/ 17 May 2024

Rooting out the rot

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GDARDE MEC Mbali Hlophe.

MEC Mbali Hlophe warns corrupt officials in her department their days are numbered

One of the first things Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi did after taking the reins was to deploy MEC Mbali Hlophe to run the merged departments of Social Development (DSD) and Agriculture Rural Development and Environment (GDARDE). The departments were merged to tackle five key priorities, namely, food security, substance abuse, homelessness, skills development and environmental sustainability. 

Turnaround strategy

According to Hlophe, her first and major priority was to stabilise the DSD and resolve the deep-rooted financial mismanagement problems that bedevilled the institution for years. The deep levels of corruption at Social Development were further spoken about by Lesufi in his State of Province Address (SOPA), which detailed how millions meant for the poor and vulnerable were going into people’s pockets for self-enrichment.

In this regard, Hlophe formulated a clear turnaround strategy focusing on corruption and maladministration, particularly in relation to the funding of the NPO sector. She found that seven investigations have been carried out to probe corruption dating as far back as 2015. The probes fingered individuals who have been consistently identified, by different and subsequent investigators, as the same ones responsible for the department’s financial woes. To date, 14 senior managers in the DSD are currently undergoing disciplinary action.  

Reluctance to act against culprit

But surprisingly, according to the MEC, no action was ever taken against them nor the findings of the investigations were acted upon since then. She said she is still puzzled why there was reluctance to act despite the overwhelming evidence and the fact that these issues were brought to the attention of relevant authorities countless times. Her own probe as mandated by the Premier focused specifically on the NPO sector, which is where a large amount of funding is spent. 

“We made an allocation of R2.3 billion in the previous financial year on the NPO sector, which is a substantial amount, when you consider that a national entity such as the National Lottery only spends a billion. Western Cape is the second highest province, and it too is at a billion, although this has since been brought down to below a billion. It is followed by KwaZulu-Natal, which spent R600 million, while all others spent below R500 million,” said Hlophe. 

Weak financial control systems

The MEC said this provides a clear context why there have been all these different investigations to look into corruption and maladministration, as this is a big investment made into NPOs by the government. “The Auditor-General’s report indicated that the internal systems in the department need to be strengthened because they are weak. For instance, for any funding environment you need to segregate the duties, because this allows you to have different individuals or committees to deal with different aspects,” said Hlophe. 

Legal unit side-lined

But she said the DSD did not have a clear separation of responsibilities. The same individuals essentially dealt with processes from beginning to end, creating a fertile environment for corruption to creep in. The department’s legal unit was completely kept away from legal processes, such as those pertaining to the service level agreements, said Hlophe. In some instances, contracts involving millions of rands were signed with NPOs without the involvement of the legal unit, even though these were legally binding on the DSD, she added. 

Even lower ranking officials such as deputy directors, she continued, were signing off money above a million, which clearly does not align with treasury regulations. She said these were some of the anomalies they are trying to fix in the institution. The aim is to centralise and streamline the processes to ensure that it is only the accounting officers who are authorised to sign. “In addition, we also make sure that we clearly delineate functions so that you don’t have the same people handling certain processes from beginning to end,” said Hlophe. 

Providing context

She said because of the re-engineering embarked on, the disbursement process to NPOs was severely delayed. “We are currently consulting with the sector to provide context and explain where things are regarding funding,” said Hlophe. “We also told them about the investigations that we have initiated and when we are going to finalise their payments,” she added. 

Reaching annual targets

Hlophe said even though disciplinary processes take long, she is confident that in the end the culprits would be punished to rid the department of the deep-seated rot. “If the disciplinary processes are not concluded during my term, I really feel I have flagged the issues and it is for the incoming 7th Administration to continue with the clean-up process, “Hlophe said. 

She added that despite the serious problems that are there, her department has received the highest performance in terms of its annual target performance within her tenure. “We are sitting at 82%, far above what it has been since 2016. I think it is a good thing, it shows that a turnaround is possible in this department. The 7th administration needs to strengthen that and ensure the Department’s performance does not drop,” said Hlophe. 

Worthy of attention is that the drop in performance in the Department coincides with the year in which the first investigation was instituted in 2016. Investigations she conducted have cited the same individuals over time until their current suspensions, enabling the Department to get back on track. 

Focusing on primary mandate

“I am happy that, in spite of the difficulty that I encountered here, overall, we have secured a strong finish for this 6th Administration. The greatest indication of this is the clean-up initiated. Exposing that it’s possible to re-focus departments and the employees, reminding them that their primary mandate is to serve our people and not to fleece the department,” concluded Hlophe.