Corruption and SA

2009-08-03 00:00

I’VE just returned from a break, part of which was spent travelling around, meeting people. Thinking back, I’m surprised at how many dinner parties ended up with heated discussions on the state of local government in this country. I heard some incredible stories, but then again not so strange given the rampant service delivery protests going on. It seems like stating the obvious but there really is a general sense of deep discontent with local government.

In one town, the story goes, three councillors have a stranglehold on local affairs. No development happens without their approval. Getting approval means that one or all of them gets a kickback. These three are not friends, just powerful people in a weak council who have accumulated enough money to throw their weight and political connections around. Of course none of this has been proven to be true, but looking around the town, an area not short on resources, it seemed evident that there was hardly any development taking place.

There were stories of bribes. Senior officials allegedly wiping outstanding electricity or water debts from the computer system in exchange for something in their back pocket or illegal planning violations being allowed to continue because someone’s palm in the council office had been greased. There were tales of cronyism and of crooked councillors or officials selling jobs in the municipality. Once again, there was no proof, but if stories get repeated often enough they gain currency and you can’t help wondering whether it’s a case of: “where there is smoke there must be fire”.

I heard about a municipal manager, the subject of endless complaints, but who is not being dismissed. The belief is that he is being kept on because he has too much dirt on other officials and councillors and if he is kicked out then he might start spilling the beans. He could well open up a can of worms on such matters as councillors and officials linked to municipal tenders and the names of people who are fronting for them. Could this be a reason why many forensic probes into municipalities go nowhere? A case of you finger me and I have several fingers pointing at you.

President Jacob Zuma is well aware of the woes of local government; he has spoken out often enough against errant councillors and officials. Zuma has also indicated that come the 2011 local government election there are going to be changes in how councillors are picked. Turning local government around may well be the litmus test of his administration. However, if a story of a young acquaintance is to believed, he has a tough road ahead of him. A lady from this youngster’s former neighbourhood, became very active in her trade union, rising up the ranks and at the same time gaining numerous promotions in her government job. She had reached a certain level and wasn’t going any further. She acquired her 4x4 and with each promotion became increasingly arrogant. Recently, my young friend attended a South African Communist Party (SACP) gathering and was surprised to see his old neighbour dressed to the hilt in party regalia, she had the T-shirt and the cap and was singing boisterously.

He was perplexed by her sudden transformation into a socialist. As far as he was aware her lifestyle hadn’t changed — she was even more remote from the neighbours. “I kept on thinking,” he said “if I asked her about Karl Marx, she probably would have thought that I was inquiring about someone in her office.” He spoke to others who knew the lady, and learnt that she had set her sights on political office. A stepping stone was to be the local government elections. Apparently it is harder to get your foot in the door within the larger structures of the ANC. To improve her chances she felt it was worth getting noticed in the smaller alliance structure.

Where do we begin to deal with these issues? Bribery is as old as the hills. In India it has become known as the second economy. Can we avoid a similar situation in South Africa?

Perhaps it is time an independent think tank conducted a study on whether bribery has indeed taken root in the country’s local government system.

And perhaps, to counter the actions of the likes of Ms designer-outfits-turned-socialist, a test for future councillors could be the good works in their communities.

At struggle hero Anton Xaba’s funeral on Saturday, Zuma called for people to follow Xaba’s example of self-sacrifice and volunteerism. It’s time for many more voices to be raised against opportunists. This is at least a start to cleaning up our embattled municipalities, from whose sphere of influence none of us is exempt.

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