All talk, no action

2010-08-11 00:00

THE meeting last week of various law enforcement agencies with the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) in the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature was a revelation. The picture it painted was one of an army of investigators working round the clock and of individual corruption cases being tackled by everyone but, ultimately, solved by no one.

Within the current legislative framework, corruption cases are dealt with by a plethora of institutions and initiatives such as the South African Police Service (SAPS), Special Investigating Unit (SIU), the Public Protector, the National Anti-Corruption Hotline and the National and Provincial Treasuries. The sum of these formidable efforts is unsurprisingly less than its parts with almost nothing to show for all the frenetic energy and expense that is invested into the government-sponsored fight against corruption.

The institutional overcrowding means that corruption cases are bouncing between individual institutions which largely act as post offices dispatching recommendations to each other.

It is an indictment of this system that not a single corruption case has been successfully prosecuted in terms of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) since the enactment of this legislation in 1999. The act defines financial misconduct, including various forms of corruption and, more importantly, includes provisions for their criminal prosecution.

It follows that the register for tender defaulters created by the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act does not bear a single name of a tender defaulter six years since its inception in 2004, despite almost daily news reports of graft at all levels of government.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the lack of a co-ordinated provincial anti-corruption policy means that individual government departments have insufficient or non-existent budgets to deal with corruption and no capacity to discipline errant officials. Some of the worst villains are still in government or remain suspended on full pay.

The lack of a legal precedent in the form of a high-profile prosecution for misappropriation of public funds or tender rigging does not serve as a deterrent for corrupt behaviour. Among public representatives and civil servants, many of whom routinely fail to declare private business interests, and in the popular imagination the belief that crime pays lives on.

As is often the case, the procedural and legal framework is in place and it is rather impressive even by international standards. In addition, many of the individuals who staff the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), the office of the Public Protector or the treasuries are clearly dedicated and competent.

And to its credit, the incumbent provincial government has been particularly outspoken against corruption. Indeed, to counter the obvious frustration which emanated from Scopa’s meeting with the law-enforcement agencies, the Office of the KwaZulu-Natal Premier rushed in with a ready enumeration of ongoing investigations into corruption.

Even though they ended a long period of denialism about corruption, the sitting MECs cannot be credited with taking much action on the dozens of reports and investigations they have commissioned, but subsequently locked up in their desk drawers.

The frequently declared war on corruption lacks credibility and substance simply because talking about action against corruption is not the same as taking it.

Political will is undoubtedly a critical factor in the fight against corruption and the promotion of clean governance. It transcends grand speeches and incorporates leading by example and ensuring that corruption does not take root and, when it does, taking prompt and firm action where it is detected. This further includes supporting various law-enforcement agencies when they do their work even if it involves fellow politicians, deployed cadres or politically connected businesspeople.

Another factor that focuses too much self-interest and greed on the limited state resources has to do with their concentration within a centralised government. If various functions of government were devolved and the hegemony over public funds was relaxed, the impulse towards self-enrichment at the government’s expense might be channelled into areas with localised control and stronger private interest.

A surprise attack on corruption that we so desperately need in KwaZulu-Natal requires determination bordering on a leap of faith. That both are possible in a country with similar institutional challenges to ours is best illustrated by the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

As one of the largest infrastructure ventures in the world, the project was designed to augment the water supply to neighbouring South Africa, while generating electricity for Lesotho in the process. It is also known for a number of corruption trials involving several multinational companies and public officials, proving the point that even a developing nation can effectively fight corruption if its legislative framework and a sense of economic self-preservation at local level are coupled with a co-ordinated effort and a strong political will.

To yield much-needed results, the creaking anti-corruption drive in KwaZulu-Natal may need look no further than over the Drakensberg mountains.

• Roman Liptak is a member of the provincial legislature and IFP KZN spokesperson on finance.

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