Why we need critics

2008-04-29 00:00

A FEW weeks ago I asked myself if people were exaggerating the extent of fraud and corruption in South Africa. This was in response to the notion that South Africans must be more positive about the country. It seemed as if feeling strongly about things like corruption, crime and violence was in some way unpatriotic. My response was to start counting how many instances of fraud and corruption I would find each day in the newspapers. I would do this for at least a week. On the first two days there was at least one instance published and then on the third day came the double whammy of the 40 000 civil servants who had committed social grant fraud and instances of corruption in the police force. I just gave up and stopped counting because I was wasting my time.

My mind started wandering in other directions because it becomes extremely tedious to trace and track corruption. It is the ongoing sheer waste of resources that really frightens me. For how long can any country bleed resources? Social grant fraud takes from the poorest to enrich the advantaged. We are a country with so many problems that need to be addressed and every cent that is misspent is a cent that could have been put to good use.

Most of the scandals are being unearthed by the press. Had it not been for the vigilance of reporters the government would probably be quite happy to sweep these things under the carpet.

The other thing that government spends lots of money on is commissions and task teams. Perhaps it would not be so bad if they took into account their findings. Just a few examples will illustrate this.

The Ginwala commission of inquiry into Vusi Pikoli has not really got going and it is too early to say how much it will cost but this commission is probably a waste of time and money as the ruling party is using taxpayers’ money to pay for sorting out the dirty laundry of the party or to cover up the actions of the president. There is nothing in it for the ordinary citizens.

The Jali Commission cost over R10 million but it uncovered such unspeakable goings-on in the prisons that it was worth the money. But the aftermath was another thing altogether. Firstly the public will never really know whether the things uncovered have been rectified. More important was the way Tatolo Setlai, head of Grootvlei Prison, was treated afterwards. He was the person who helped to bring much to the public’s attention by allowing the infamous video to be made. He was charged and then charges were withdrawn, he was also supposedly promoted to the parole board which was in truth a demotion to get him out of the way and he had to be reinstated. He lost his job but in March he finally had to be reinstated after protracted legal wrangles. He received none of the protection that whistle-blowers are supposed to receive. The Free State Commissioner was questioned at the Jali inquiry regarding the victimisation of Setlai but that did not save or protect Setla from his employer. There was a strong element of vindictiveness in these protracted proceedings: he had broken ranks and exposed prison conditions. Instead of receiving praise he became a scapegoat.

The Hefer Commission that sat for some while and is said to have cost in the region of R3 million was another exercise in futility. It too was an excuse to deal with the ruling party’s internal squabbles and the vendetta waged against the Scorpions by some of them. This leads one directly to the Khampepe Commission that dealt with the Scorpions. The findings have not been released and the bits and pieces that have seen the light of day make no difference as the ANC Polokwane Conference has taken a decision to disband the Scorpions.

Last, but not least, is the Electoral Task Team that was led by Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert. The report was finalised by January 2003. It also has had very little effect on government decisions. Only now after all these years has the government realised that the representatives in all tiers of government are often not accountable to their constituents. The other day the SABC interviewed people and found that many do not even know who their representatives are and that they often do not respect or trust them.

There is light at the end of the tunnel but I have thought hard about whether criticism and complaining will do any good. However, it is an important component of democracy. One only has to look to Zimbabwe, where in 1985 there were already whispers of the elite enriching themselves. We have to guard against being blackmailed into silence. The recent court proceedings against the arms shipment meant for Zimbabwe was a beacon of light and hope. The SA Transport and Allied Workers Union are to be commended for their decision not to offload the cargo, so too the concerned persons who went to court resulting in the ship fleeing. All while the South African government was waffling on about it not being illegal, even as most South Africans were shamed. As long as there are people willing to hold the government to account there will be hope that South Africans will not be pushovers, nor be so regularly ashamed of the actions of the ruling elite.

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