Conflicts of interest in a democracy

2008-01-25 00:00

When democracy was achieved through the ballot box in our country some referred to it as a watershed. But despite having achieved some of the goals we set for ourselves as a nation, we have not rid ourselves of crass materialism, greed and the hunger for wealth and power.

There is an endemic malaise in this country — that of conflicts of interest — which is reinforced by greed. This problem is much more pronounced in the higher echelons of the government where business enters into agreements with state mandarins and members of political parties to plunder the country’s resources. In recent times many former heads of government departments and other top officials have gone into business. Often the businesses they pursue are directly related to the work they did for the government. An official from communications will pursue business interests in information technology; a former state bureaucrat from education will pursue business ventures in the selling of school books and stationery. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any person in our country going into business but we should be perturbed when such businesses are kick-started with state resources or through the diversion of funds meant for the poor. In some instances executives become instrumental in awarding tenders to the companies they are to join later.

There are critical questions that have to be answered by the powers that be or by those deployed by the government to serve the masses.

• To what extent are the members of political parties involved in practices that bring about conflicts of interest with their task of serving the people of our country?

• To what extent do current tendering policies promote what the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Zwelinzima Vavi, refers to as “public officials or people’s representatives during the day, shareholders by night”?

• To what extent are party structures involved in ensuring that these practices are dealt with decisively?

• Do the current deployment policies of government officials include scrutinising the character and commitment of would-be officials to ascertain that they are truly devoted to ensuring that there is a better life for all and not only for themselves?

• For how long are we going to tolerate individuals involved in such conflicts of interest?

Like all patriots I am happy that the Polokwane conference charted a new course for our country. Of course I was worried about the levels of arrogance, nepotism, elitism and outright marginalisation of dissenting voices in the ANC. Prior to Polokwane, the African values that many South Africans cherish were beginning to be undermined. There was total neglect of education, collective leadership, experience, cadreship, morality and expertise in the selection of public representatives as well as top officials of the government and parastatals. The following tendencies were rewarded:

• previous experience of being a yes man or woman;

• turning a blind eye to conflicts of interest if these are practised by your party;

• subscribing to elitism (respecting those who appointed you to a position and marginalising the weak and the poor);

• being a friend or relative of a particular faction; and

• an arrogant display of opulence.

The nation was beginning to bleed as a result. Genuine friendship and comradeship ceased to exist. Communities that lived peacefully in the past were exhibiting cracks in that peace. Too many questions remain unanswered. What is it that makes some flamboyant while others suffer in a democratic South Africa?

Some in our country may undermine the democratic process that prevailed at the ANC’s 52nd conference. It is worth noting that seven current premiers made themselves available for election to the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and they were not elected. They may have lost because they have not dealt effectively with issues involving conflicts of interest in their respective provinces.

One thing remains certain: unfair access to opportunities and a better life cannot be the exclusive preserve of a few elite but should be a right for all South Africans. There must be scrutiny of those who want to serve the people.

South Africa and the ANC membership should not allow the masses of our people to be deluded by wolves in sheep’s clothing. Let us root out all those who join the government to pursue their business interests at the expense of the majority of our country.

• Dr Nelson Bheki Madela is an educationist based in Pietermaritzburg.

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