Mpumelelo Mkhabela

How government can get its credibility back

2019-03-08 05:00
Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo presiding over the commission of inquiry into state capture. (Gulshan Khan/AFP)

Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo presiding over the commission of inquiry into state capture. (Gulshan Khan/AFP)

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Real-time transparency in everything government does in the procurement of services and goods can go a long way in solving corruption and state capture, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was publicly criticised for claiming he had not known the extent of corruption and state capture while he was deputy president of the country. 

He told editors in May last year that when the media first reported about Eskom and other entities, he thought these were isolated incidents "of maybe a wheel nut that had gone loose". "But when the Gupta emails came out it became clear that the wheels have actually come off completely‚" he said. 

The fact that Ramaphosa didn't know when he was so close to power meant ordinary citizens were in an even worse position. When the consequences of state capture began to manifest – depreciating pension benefits for workers, collapse of governance at key state institutions and state companies, jobs losses, credit ratings downgrade, stagnant growth, low investor confidence – we bore the brunt of it all. 

Those who had an idea of what to do when the government was increasingly becoming rogue, albeit in a democracy context, suggested that citizens needed to mobilise. After the dismissal of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister, anti-corruption activists took to the streets. They protested because the consequences of state capture were hitting our pockets. The costs are being quantified. Some estimates point to a trillion Rand. But the damage is incalculable. 

How do we quantify the loss of national pride? We were supposed to be exceptional after witnessing the mistakes of post-independence Africa that became thoroughly kleptocratic and put into disrepute the very idea of liberation. Regardless of the current investigations, we have already planted in our minds and in the minds of others around the world that there is a real possibility that we could fall into the kleptocratic trap. 

As more revelations emerge at the state capture commission of inquiry, showing that state capture predates the Guptas, citizens are genuinely concerned: how can this be prevented in future? 

Last week, chairman of the inquiry Justice Raymond Zondo posed the question to witness Trevor Manuel, the former finance minister. Manuel battled to answer. He was clearly troubled and expressed concern about the value system that pervades the whole society. He said there was a need for a national conversation. 

National revolution on transparency

Now, here is something we might want to discuss as part of the national conversation. How about a national revolution on transparency? Here is how it might work. Let's use as a starting point the Eastern Cape toilet scandal where the provincial department of education paid between R3,3m to R4,8m to build nine pit toilets. 

Let's say for example, when the tender was advertised, there was a programme at Umhlobo Wenene, the biggest radio station in the Eastern Cape, informing residents of the impending construction of the toilets. Tenders for the supply of public goods must not only be the preoccupation of tenderpreneurs; citizens must be interested in what is about to be procured through their taxes. 

The adjudication of a tender would not proceed until there is a certain number of community members present as witnesses. This should also be reported in the media. In fact, some big tenders that costs billions of rands should be adjudicated live on television. The public should know the service providers appointed and what to expect of them. 

After the awarding of the tender, the names of the directors of the companies awarded the contract should be published alongside the delivery milestones. Some work procured on behalf of the state could be technical for public consumption but effort should be made to simplify for everyone. The published information should also contain the total contractual amount and time frames. Each time the government pays a contractor for a specific milestone, there must be an announcement in the community.

For example, it would have been announced that just over R366 000 will be paid to a contractor for completing one toilet. The community should make their judgment as to why an amount that could buy a four-bedroom house is buying a toilet. We don't have to wait for the Auditor General a year and a half later to tell us what happened.

Real-time transparency in everything government does in the procurement of services and goods can go a long way in solving corruption and state capture. Citizens, including the deputy president of the republic must not be put in a position where they don't know how state-owned enterprises procure goods and services and who are the suppliers. Everyone must know. 

Institutions must enforce legislation

Transparency could be a major blow against corruption and state capture. It should become a culture. The current legislation such as the Public Finance Management Act and the Prevention and Combatting of Corrupt Activities Act are very progressive. But they need independent state institutions to enforce them. And when such institutions are captured, then we are doomed.

We need another legislation that will give communities greater power of direct oversight. If such a system works, you have to capture citizens to be able to capture the state. The existing access to information legislation must be completely overhauled. Access to information about contract values, payments, suppliers, must be readily available anytime to any citizen. There must be no confidentiality clauses. The only confidential thing should be intellectual property; not the amount taxpayers pay for it. Suppliers must be compelled to disclose subcontractors, even if they are changed in the course of the implementation of a project.

The new legislation that could bring about revolution on transparency must be anchored on Section 217 of the Constitution. It states: "When an organ of state in the national, provincial or local sphere of government, or any other institution identified in national legislation, contracts goods or services, it must do so in accordance with a system which is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective."  

It's about time this constitutional provision was given extra teeth in all state-owned enterprises and government institutions. It must not wait for Zondo to complete the state capture inquiry. The last thing we want as a country is for another inquiry to be established to investigate new forms of state capture that took root while Zondo was busy probing the old.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

Read more on:    government  |  corruption  |  state capture inquiry
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