Looting and pillaging

2009-07-22 00:00

NOBODY likes paying taxes, not even United States Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, whose task it is to get Americans to pay theirs. He failed for years to pay self-employment taxes. In South Africa, this patriotic obligation is even more painful, as we watch public servants squander our money constantly and shamelessly.

Some African National Congress ministers and appointees to parastatals have made the “smash-and-grab culture” a national pastime. For instance, SABC board members have sunk so low as to claim not only exorbitant board fees but also clothing and petrol allowances. Similarly, the Land Bank’s billion-rand scandal, unsurprisingly, is again in the public eye, despite revelations last year that Deloitte and Touche had sent a forensic auditor’s report to the cabinet exposing the endemic corruption within the bank. The minister on whose watch it all happened — and who fired senior executives in the bank for instituting forensic audits — was rewarded with another ministry instead of being fired.

I wrote about this last year, but it bears repeating. The report was handed over to the police to investigate, but was subsequently withdrawn by the cabinet. Pearlie Joubert from the Mail & Guardian, reported in May that Lulu Xingwana, then Minister of Land and Agriculture, was being sued by the estranged wife of the CEO of the Land Bank, Phil Mohlahlane, in a divorce suit that revealed a web of intrigue between Xingwana and Mohlahlane. The controversy exposed all kinds of unusual perks and privileges, and bank officials who had defrauded the bank of more than R2 billion to fund investments of close friends and business associates.

Instead of allowing the police to investigate such astronomical fraud, the Treasury thinks that by taking over the bank it can clean it up, while simultaneously covering up for those senior officials implicated — of whom Xingwana must surely be the prime suspect. Deputy Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene does us no favours by dilly-dallying instead of allowing the police unfettered access to probe this colossal fraud without political interference. A first step would be to release the Deloittes report.

All of this looting, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg. It was revealed in Business Day last week that between August 2007 and July last year senior public servants had awarded themselves, family members or associates contracts worth more than R600 million. Where is the South African Revenue Service in all of this? Does it investigate crooked public servants with the same vigour as us “small people” and retrieve the loot they steal from state institutions? Does another law apply to those in the upper echelons, who steal from budgets assigned to alleviate poverty and provide services to the poor?

Recently, I went to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown but I found it hard to enjoy the event when there were so many poor people around me begging. I then found a student who took me to the black townships of Joza, Tantyi, Fingo and Vergenoeg. I was appalled at the poverty, the filth that no municipality cleans up, and the number of unemployed men standing around. The same goes for Crossroads, Alexandra, Diepsloot, Imizamo Yethu, Joe Slovo, and the burgeoning informal settlements in Khayelitsha. To people trapped in these hellholes, 1994 means nothing. And they are led to believe that to eradicate the housing backlog, the government needs billions of rands.

If we take the R2 billion siphoned from the Land Bank, the billions used to bail out South African Airways, the billions looted from the SABC, and the corruption in the procurement process — not to speak of government funds used to back black economic empowerment deals — we could eliminate the housing backlog in an instant. If we can put up grand stadia within a year for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, surely we can deal with housing as a priority?

The Jacob Zuma government, like the one before it, is squandering the trust of the electorate by failing to expose and fire those who steal our money, whoever they are. The anger in Diepsloot will soon spill over into other townships, and no police repression will be able stop people who live on R500 a month but see those who govern them live on R50 000 a month — and still steal from the taxpayer.

• Rhoda Kadalie is a human rights activist based in Cape Town.

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