Newsmaker: Prudent AG takes stock after 13 years

2013-03-17 10:00

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At the end of this year, South Africa’s auditor-in-chief is vacating his office after seven years in the hot seat.

Auditor-General (AG) Terence Nombembe’s contract allows him to serve one non-renewable term of seven years, so the move was planned.

But he is coy about what comes next.

The Eastern Cape-born chartered accountant doesn’t want his skills to be lost to the public sector. He has been with the AG’s office for 13 years, serving as former AG Shauket Fakie’s deputy for some years before taking over.

It would be particularly ironic if he’s reincarnated as a consultant – a suggestion he idly bandies about – since his office has been vocally critical of government’s excessive reliance on consultants.

It’s safe to say that the 52-year-old father of three adult children won’t struggle to find work come next year.

Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has already suggested that Nombembe is welcome to teach at the governance school her department is setting up for civil servants.

And if he decides to become a man of leisure, he should be financially comfortable: the chairperson of the standing committee on the AG has recommended to President Jacob Zuma that the AG’s pension benefits be awarded to him retrospectively.

Committee chairperson Mike Masutha says Nombembe has elevated his office’s performance enormously, and this hard work should be rewarded.

For a man whose job requires tough questions of the state, Nombembe and his team of auditors have remained out of the firing line.

He’s probably the envy of other Chapter Nine institution leaders like Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, whose tough stance on graft and maladministration has set her on a collision course with senior government officials.

So what’s Nombembe’s secret?

Simply, he believes it is that he hasn’t said in public what he has not said to Cabinet ministers and government officials in their private meetings.

Shortly after former president Thabo Mbeki appointed him to the post in 2006, Nombembe decided to make the institution more visible and to simplify what are usually very technical audit reports.

He says: “Availability is the trick of the trade. There is nothing that any minister or any department will hear in public without them having been consulted thoroughly about the facts contained in our reports.

“We’ve also been very clear that our information is meant to build public confidence, and there’s no way we can build public confidence if we push information under the carpet. But the secret weapon is humility and sincerity.”

During an interview at the AG’s provincial offices in Houghton, north of Joburg, Nombembe fields questions about his latest audit findings on the performance of national and provincial governments.

He’s a careful man, judicious with his words and not given to hyperbole.

For example, he gently dismisses attempts to get examples of specific projects where provincial governments have wasted or irregularly spent nearly R25?billion in taxpayers’ money.

He cites professional ethics, saying these bind him to confidentiality as an auditor. Maybe, he suggests, the provincial governments will give City Press the information if they are asked “nicely”.

He’s got a tough streak, too.

The Pretoria East resident is known to some of his staff at the AG’s head office in Pretoria as a bit of a slave driver who works extremely long hours to make sure his reports are completed on time.

When asked how he keeps stress and burnout at bay, he says: “For me the biggest thing is to do my job and not to do somebody else’s job, because if I made any attempts to do somebody else’s job the stress would mount.

“The delegation that exists in the office, I respect to the letter. If an employee sent me a document that is lousy I send it back, I don’t look at it until I am happy. That it is what has been agreed to.”

He also goes to gym and watches cricket, soccer and rugby in his spare time. He would love to go to the movies if he had the time. But one thing Nombembe does almost without fail is to teach a weekly Sunday school class at the Pretoria Central Methodist Church.

It is a labour of love.

“If we want to get the society to purify, we need to start at the level of a young age. If the conduct and the culture of these kids is left to chance, we will have an adult society that is morally problematic.

“It’s about moulding the moral fibre of our kids,” Nombembe says.

What government could have done . . .

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