Can a leopard change its spots?

2009-10-09 00:00

THE beleaguered KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development seems to have turned a corner as far as its ability to manage its finances is concerned.

For the first time in four years the department received an unqualified audit and a “clean bill of health” earlier this week during the sitting of the province’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) in the KZN Legislature.

Committee members, including those from the opposition parties, praised the department’s fin­ancial turnaround strategy, which was implemented at the beginning of the year and res­ulted in an overhaul of internal financial controls, expenditure monitoring and reporting, revenue management, and procurement.

At the helm of the turnaround is acting head of department and acting chief financial officer, Siddiq Adam and Shabeer Essa, respectively.

Adam was commended by Democratic Alliance caucus leader John Steenhuisen and the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Alex Hamilton for improving the fin­ances of the department, which have in the past been in a state of disarray. However, the ghosts of the past continue to haunt this department.

Both opposition members insist that the past financial irregularities, mismanagement and unauthorised overexpenditure should not go unpunished.

They contend that those who acted in contravention of the Provincial Finance Management Act (PFMA) by engaging in unauthorised overexpenditure and those who mismanaged tax­payers’ money should be charged, either in terms of the PFMA or criminally.

Whatever legal route is taken, the officials concerned need to face the music. Period.

Even after a forensic report on the financial mismanagement was conducted, the officials implicated managed to avoid paying for their unlawful actions. Now we are left with the nagging assumption that departmental officials who took part in these dodgy activities have fatter pockets as a result.

Is it an assumption or a matter of calling a spade a spade? Let’s call corruption and fraud by their real names. On any basis­ — constitutionally or in terms of common law — corruption and fraud are unacceptable.

Of course, it is baffling in the first place how a pivotal department, responsible for food security at a time when so many South Africans are going hungry, could have been allowed to get away with runaway expenditure. Given the nature of the media coverage on the issue, one cannot help but get a sense that the finance department officials operated as they pleased. And they were cunning too.

Now, the financial control systems might be in place, but leaving those who were responsible for the mess in place is a grave oversight, which is likely to cause more headaches down the line. This is because Adam said that while his team were “relentless and fearless in their perseverance” when it came to achieving the conditions that resulted in the department’s clean audit, the turnaround strategy was not implemented without resistance to change from department officials.

In order for the government to succeed in its fight against fraud and corruption, a clear message needs to be sent across all spheres of government.

And that message is: don’t sit on the findings of forensic investigations; implement them. Charge people who are embezzling­ taxpayers’ money, recover the money and lock up those found guilty.

Only then will the message go out to other officials who might be tempted to use money aimed at improving service delivery and development for their personal spending sprees.

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