In his first physical appearance in the National Assembly since February, President Cyril Ramaphosa took to the podium in Cape Town to answer critical questions from MPs about the government’s response to Covid-19-related corruption. He was also asked about the role of his official spokesperson in alleged graft, and his opinion on the appointment of people accused of tender fraud to government positions.
This is as Ramaphosa’s administration comes to terms with claims of massive corruption that have been a byproduct of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the national state of disaster.
Briefing Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts last week, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) told MPs that 658 contracts relating to personal protective equipment (PPE) are currently being investigated, among all three spheres of government, as well as various state entities.
In July, Ramaphosa signed a proclamation ordering the SIU to investigate allegations of Covid-related corruption after it was revealed that politically connected people and unscrupulous business figures might have benefitted from personal protective equipment tenders.
Connected, is the president’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko, whose husband Thandizwe Diko allegedly scored a R125-million PPE contract through the Gauteng provincial health department.
But the president said interventions and investigations by the South African Revenue Service, law-enforcement bodies, and the National Prosecuting Authority had proved a success.
He also told MPs that the auditor-general’s office is conducting real-time audits of Covid-19-related expenditure.
On Thursday, national treasury made public a list of all the companies who have benefited from PPE tenders since the pandemic hit.
“Perhaps the greatest defence against corruption in public procurement is to make the entire process much more transparent; much more open to public scrutiny,” Ramaphosa told MPs.
The president also said the job of the ministerial task team — set up to compile Covid-19-related procurement data — was not to investigate but to collate a comprehensive report on the details of all tenders and contracts awarded by all government departments and entities.
To date, 95% of government departments and entities have submitted information on Covid-19 procurement to the ministerial team.
“This is unprecedented in our country’s history to allow members of the public to find detailed information on how public funds are being spent. This establishes an important precedent to scrutiny of this nature,” Ramaphosa said.
Answering tough questions
Only a handful of MPs gathered in person, physically distanced in the National Assembly chamber, with most MPs tuning in virtually.
Asked in the house by Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader John Steenhuisen whether he agrees with the ascension of former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede — who is currently facing unrelated tender-fraud charges — to the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature, Ramaphosa said the matter is presently being discussed by the ANC.
“It has admittedly caused a lot of disquiet within the structures of the ANC, in a democratic manner. And we’ll leave it to those structures to deal with it,” he said.
Criticised by the opposition for not taking a more hands-on approach to tackling graft, Ramaphosa hit out, saying it was not his job to arrest people.
“The day it happens, you must run for the hills. Because the day you have a president who is arresting people, investigating and prosecuting them, putting them in jail, then you have no democracy. My task as president is not to investigate this one and that one. It is to set up the institutions that will do their work. They must do their work,” he said.
Ramaphosa also said plans are under way to rebuild a Scorpions-style crime-fighting outfit that would tackle serious commercial crime and corruption. The elite unit was officially disbanded in 2009, after a 2007 ANC national conference resolution. The unit will, like the Scorpions, have investigators who are also able to prosecute cases in court.
Asked by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema — who attended the sitting virtually from home — about the president’s spokesperson’s role in Covid-19-related corruption, Ramaphosa said the matter was being looked into and receiving attention.
Malema then called on Ramaphosa to unseal details of his CR17 ANC presidential campaign and its donors.
“You will make it easy for us to see whether the donors of CR17 are not the beneficiaries of PPEs. You say you are anti-corruption, but you have sealed documents that could make you and your ministers accountable, “ Malema said.
Ramaphosa said the matter was currently before the courts.
“Your allegation that those who donated were involved in PPE contracting, I don’t know about that,” Ramaphosa told Malema.
Asked by ANC MP Jacqueline Mofokeng what plans he had to stem the tide of gender-based violence and femicide, Ramaphosa said his government has already implemented the National Strategic Plan against gender-based violence.
He also said R1.6-billion had been set aside for the government’s emergency response plan. The money has been used to pay for, among other things, 11 sexual offences courts and the supply of sexual-assault evidence kits to all police stations.
“We have managed to improve access to justice for victims and survivors, and have improved our capacity to investigate, as well as prosecute, gender-based violence perpetrators … Three amendment bills to strengthen the response of our criminal justice system have been approved by Parliament and will be introduced into the parliamentary system,” Ramaphosa said.
The bills make it more difficult for alleged perpetrators to receive bail, will make parole conditions more stringent, and increase minimum sentences for those found guilty of sexual offences.