Sweetening the deal

2009-03-03 00:00

It used to be known as the “Yengeni” phenomenon — that syndrome where a politician receives a gift or a large amount of money — and it emerges that the “gift” had serious strings attached. These days, it could be called the “Niehaus” phenomenon — where a politician assumes that, because of his position, he can pull in financial and other favours in exchange for another favour which involves pulling his or her rank.

Schabir Shaik even tried his luck by maintaining that in his dealings with Jacob Zuma he was merely helping out a friend. Shaik’s lawyer, Jeremy Gauntlett, told the Supreme Court of Appeal that, far from having a “generally corrupt” relationship, Shaik and Zuma had a strong, long-existing and prior relationship where support had been given in the past.

South Africans have watched politicians over the years as they have talked away the “sweeteners” they have received, and many of us have resigned ourselves to the fact that we live in a culture of corruption. So, it was refreshing to hear President Kgalema Motlanthe last week describing gifts as “the frontline soldiers of corruption”.

Introducing the African National Congress’s election manifesto in Lenasia earlier this week, Motlanthe said one of the key factors in defeating corruption is for public servants to resist gifts.

“The struggle against corruption also entails political work to ensure that our public servants are at all times conscious of their duty to the communities and are conscious of the dangers of accepting sweeteners. Then we can defeat corruption,” Motlanthe said.

In Yengeni’s case, the once respected struggle activist who, after the 1994 elections, was rewarded with the influential position of chairman of Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee for Defence, suddenly emerged as the driver of a state-of-the-art green Mercedes Benz in 1998. After Patricia de Lille started asking questions about kickbacks and corruption linked to the government’s controversial arms deal, it emerged that Yengeni had received a large discount on the car from an arms company which had benefited from South Africa’s arms deal.

In Karl Niehaus’s case, among other things, the church deacon, ANC activist and, later, ANC member of Parliament, forged the signatures of top Gauteng government officials in a bid to obtain a loan from a businessman wanting to secure special treatment from the Gauteng government on property deals. The heavily indebted Niehaus took part in a number of other financial indiscretions.

But, in his address last week, Motlanthe had this to say: “Many people think it’s only public servants who are corrupt ... it’s people from outside who tempt them with these gifts. Public servants need to be trained about the dangers of accepting these gifts.”

Which brings us to what could be called the “Brett Kebble” phenomenon — where a top businessman uses his money to win favours from key politicians to serve his own interests.

As Willem Landman, the CEO of the Ethics Institute of Southern Africa reminds us: “In cases of corruption, there are always two parties, the corrupted and the corrupter.”

Remember how Kebble joined the ANC and then became famous for all the black empowerment deals he brokered? At one stage it was reported that he virtually controlled the ANC Youth League because of the financial support he gave the organisation. He was regularly accused of attempting to buy favours and influence. He even offered his own legal advisor, Judge Willem Heath, to help Jacob Zuma, when corruption charges were lodged against him.

After Kebble was assassinated in 2005 and the tributes flowed in, the Sunday Times refused to join in, saying in its editorial: “Even though convention requires that we speak well of the dead, we will not be part of the lie. Brett Kebble was not a good South African. He was the great corrupter, a dirty businessman who had little respect for the law or codes of good practice. He corrupted politicians and created a parasitical network of politically connected beneficiaries who affectionately called him umlungu wethu [our white man].”

Alleged drug dealer Glenn Agliotti was later charged with Kebble’s murder and was, himself, found to be a close friend of South Africa’s national police commissioner, Jackie Selebi. When the Scorpions conducted 29 searches around the country, one of its key aims was to probe allegations that Kebble had made disguised payments of millions of rands to the ANC and its affiliates.

When the Kebble investigation was in full swing, an expert on corruption at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, Hennie van Vuuren, said scandals like that surrounding Kebble and his link with the ruling party are bad for young democracies, where the laws are still being made and where political power is still being worked out, adding that, in such a political

climate, temptations are “unusually great”. Van Vuuren pointed out that, during the nineties, Russia’s democracy was “all but overwhelmed” by corrupt ties between business tycoons and the government.

Which means that measures such as Parliament’s Register of Members’ Interests are to be praised and protected. The register requires members of Parliament to declare, annually, their private financial interests, the value of their shareholdings, the source of extra remuneration, interest in property, details of foreign travel and all gifts and hospitality above the value of R350. The register is the defining feature of the Parliamentary Code of Conduct which also provides for a Joint Committee on Ethics and Members Interests, the function of which is to develop standards of conduct for members.

The committee, over the years, has had to deal with a number of complaints each year, some serious, some not. They involved people like Yengeni, the IFP’s Mandla Msomi, Winnie Madikezela Mandela and the former Minister of Defence, Mosiuoa Lekota.

Although a number of obvious weaknesses have been identified in the Parliamentary Code of Conduct, opposition parties, civil society and the media should make use of it in a bid to be vigilant about monitoring the activities of public servants.

They should also take heart from Motlanthe’s comments on corruption, even though he was the man who approved two pieces of legislation disbanding the Scorpions while the unit was pursuing a case of bribery which would have taken the country all the way to the door of the country’s president-in-waiting, Zuma.

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