It is not the president’s duty to arrest people implicated in acts of corruption, President Cyril Ramaphosa said during the question and answer session in Parliament on Thursday.
Ramaphosa’s government, which campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, has come under fire for the lack of consequences against people accused of wrongdoing in Covid-19 procurement looting, including his spokesperson in the presidency, Khusela Diko.
In a comment reminiscent of that of former President Thabo Mbeki, when he was asked about the case of the late former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi, Ramaphosa told members of Parliament on Thursday that the day the president gets involved in making criminal arrests, they must “run for the hills”.
Mbeki famously responded to a journalist in 2007 who asked whether he had seen the warrant of arrest of then police commissioner Jackie Selebi thus: “You cannot be serious. Have you ever heard of a president issuing a warrant?”
At the time Mbeki was seen to be trying to protect Selebi from arrest by the Scorpions.
Ramaphosa said his duties as president were not to go out and investigate wrongdoing, but to set up strong institutions that would deal with the work.
“One day you will have a crazy president arresting people and putting them in jail,” he warned, adding that he could not be seen to be creating that precedent.
Ramaphosa said the Covid-19 looting spree should mark a turning point against corruption that would see new reforms in the procurement system focusing on transparency and openness. He said he was not against people making a profit in their trade, but public resources must be used properly and fairly.
He said the answer was in building strong institutions, citing as an example the plan to create a new agency with the capacity to investigate and prosecute criminal cases, similar to the Scorpions unit that was disbanded in 2008.
EFF leader Julius Malema warned Ramaphosa that he would need the permission of the ANC – which disbanded the Scorpions – if he were to build a similar unit so he should not mislead the public.
Malema said corruption was so deeply rooted that even people in the country’s highest office – a reference to Diko – were implicated.
He challenged Ramaphosa to publicly reveal the names of the donors who contributed to his ANC presidency campaign in 2017 so that it could be verified whether they were also not involved in Covid-19 looting.
He also proposed the scrapping of tenders and local production of personal protective equipment, as well as the introduction of special courts to prosecute those who had looted this equipment, as had happened with tenders during the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
Ramaphosa declined to comment on party political affairs but he said he favoured functional and capable institutions to fight corruption.
He said Diko had stepped aside and the matter was being looked at, while the decision over revealing the donors behind his ANC campaign was a matter before court.
However, he said, he did not know whether any of his funders would have been involved in personal protective equipment looting.
He agreed with doing away with tenders for this equipment and producing the products locally. An announcement on special courts was due to be made soon, he said.
Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald said Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” election campaign placed the fight against corruption as a priority, but he was unable to act decisively because ANC members and leaders were implicated.
Groenewald asked Ramaphosa if he had misled the nation when he had said the government would ensure that the funds meant for personal protective equipment were not looted.
Ramaphosa said there was a misconception that the entire R500 billion allocated to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic had been looted, but that was not the case.
He said that, according to the National Treasury, only R11 billion had been spent on Covid-19 procurement.
He said that, with the office of the Auditor-General, measures had been put in place to ensure the detection of fraud and corruption, but clearly the systems were not tight enough.
But some of the worst cases had been identified, he said.
“That is why I say that we must take this as a moment when we enter into the new era as far as fighting corruption is concerned, by putting in new procurement reforms.”
Ramaphosa said that, for the first time, the 11 agencies in the criminal justice system were working together, looking at all acts of corruption and “we are going to make progress”.
“This is a moment that we now need to capitalise on to strengthen our resolve to fight corruption,” he said, adding that the nation was justifiably angry over the looting spree but “we have actually turned the trajectory in dealing with corruption in South Africa”.
But DA leader John Steenhuisen said Ramaphosa’s government was soft on corruption to protect people in the ANC, which he described as “pathologically incapable of self-correction”.
Steenhuisen said the line that Ramaphosa said he was drawing against corruption was probably made of invisible ink, because “the line keeps getting ignored”.