Ivor Sarakinsky | Whistleblowing is no substitute for proper public accountability

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Babita Deokaran.
Babita Deokaran.

The immediate response in light of the murder of Babita Deokaran to call for better protection for whistleblowers misses the point, writes Ivor Sarakinsky. He argues that there would be no need for whistleblowers to expose corruption if the Constitutionally-empowered accountability and oversight infrastructure of South Africa's public governance system functioned properly.

Many words have been written about the bravery of Babita Deokaran in exposing corruption in the cesspool that is the Gauteng Department of Health. There has been much handwringing too.

Ms Deokaran is another in a long list of officials whose career and life have been cut short because they chose to do the right thing and expose corruption instead of looking the other way. The immediate response now is to reassess protection for whistleblowers so that they are secure in continuing to play their crucial role in exposing corruption.

This response, as crucial as it is, misses the point. It deals with symptoms rather than causes and deflects public attention away from where the real problem lies. 

There should be no need for whistleblowers to expose corruption if the Constitutionally-empowered accountability and oversight infrastructure of South Africa's public governance system functioned properly - at national, provincial and local levels.

Oversight committees

The burden of exposing the rot unfairly falls upon those whose conscience forces them to do the right thing even though elected and appointed officials, whose vocation it is to do all of that, have abrogated their responsibility.

At national and provincial level, there are oversight committees in the Legislature empowered by the Constitution to do this work. At national level, the Digital Vibes fiasco remained undetected by the Health Portfolio Committee and investigative journalism, another hero in the fight against corruption, did the work. The Gauteng provincial health oversight committee was and is missing in action in the battle against PPE corruption - not the first time as the Life Esidimeni atrocity demonstrates. These Committees have the power to scrutinise Annual Performance Plans and associated Expenditure Plans, including Quarterly Reports. 

READ | Mandy Wiener: PPE corruption: Babita Deokaran is why we have to protect whistleblowers

The numbers associated with the PPE corruption should have stuck out like big throbbing sore thumbs to everyone. This oversight failure should not simply lead to an inference of collusion. There may have some of that. Who knows? What is clear is that the Chair of the Committee and other members did not spot it because they may not be well versed with basic accounting practice in the public sector and cannot accurately interpret quarterly financial statements. Maybe the Whips are too good at their jobs at getting the caucus to comply with party priorities rather than Constitutional imperatives.

It gets worse. There is also a portfolio committee at the national and provincial level tasked solely with overseeing public accounts or public expenditure. These committees are much more specialised, and one would assume that the members who sit on such committees have some financial literacy. If they don't, then the whole oversight and accountability infrastructure to ensure the effective and efficient use of scarce fiscal public resources collapses like a house of cards.

If you thought it could not get worse, then hold on tight because it does.

Serious concerns 

At national and provincial level, respective Treasuries pay the accounts and are expected to perform another level of due diligence before signing the cheques. In the case of Gauteng Treasury, Ms Deokaran discussed this with the Head of the Kathrada Foundation, Neeshan Bolton, raising serious concerns with its professionalism. Instead of due diligence, there is another level of corruption enablement due to incompetence, a lack of attention to detail, collusion or even all three combined. Who knows?

The next layer of dysfunction is the supply chain mismanagement process with sign-off from senior managers and Internal Auditors who simply do not do their jobs properly.

Internal disciplinary process should follow, but don't hold your breath. Suspension with full pay already costs the taxpayer R4.5 billion with the latest figures of 6 334 officials being paid to stay at home. Money that could fund development becomes salaries for those adding no value because disciplinary processes are also dysfunctional. This is something that the Constitutionally-empowered Public Service Commission might take an interest in. In any event, more accountability and oversight failure.

READ | Adriaan Basson: A hit and a bankrupt ANC - scenes from the end of patronage

The less said about the current Public Protector, the better. One only hopes that that important office pursuing accountability may recover its credibility and then contribute to cleaning up the public sector in South Africa.

The Office of the Auditor-General has always and continues under the leadership of Ms Tsakane Maluleke to perform accurate and incisive audits of the spending of all public entities. For decades all the recommendations for improvement in reporting were ignored by elected and appointed officials, with the number of clean audits declining like Arsenal supporters of late. 

A highly professional and Constitutionally empowered body such as the AGSA has failed to encourage all the structures and personnel noted above just to do their jobs properly. The Amendment of the AG Act now gives this body the power to bite. In more recent reports on public accounts, a new item, Material Irregularity, joins the lexicon of categories describing flawed financial management. These items may now be investigated further and pursued by the AG, culminating in prosecution. This is a good development. But the question remains: Why should the AG have done the work that many already empowered oversight and accountability structures at national and provincial are failing to do?

At local government level, Section 79 Committees and the Municipal Public Accounts Committee are empowered to fulfil all the functions above as set out in the Municipal Structures Act. At all three tiers of government in South Africa, oversight and accountability are becoming increasingly rare, with no consequence for fewer and fewer clean audits.

Dysfunctional oversight and accountability

In short, the oversight and accountability infrastructure across all three tiers of government is clearly dysfunctional.

The Constitutional aspiration of a vibrant Legislature that does a lot more than pass legislation has been disappointed. The powers and functions of elected and appointed officials to perform oversight and ensure accountability are under-utilised due to collusion, fear, lackadaisical attitude, incompetence or all of these and more. 

Protecting whistleblowers is always an important matter, and the bulk of the "Blue Light" budget should be made available for this. But, empowering whistleblowers is not a sustainable solution to the fundamental breakdown of oversight and accountability at every level of the public service.

The politicians in committees need to up their game. The senior managers need to justify their salaries. The paymasters need to perform proper due diligence. But even this assumes that those in such positions have the capacity to do their jobs properly. That may well be a flawed assumption. 

Putting people in positions of authority without appropriate skills and qualifications may be intentional – to create dependence and ensure that oversight and accountability become chimaeras by design. We can only hope that this is not the case. But the clean-up, if it ever happens, has to start at the process of recruitment and retention of skilled, competent and professional public servants, elected and appointed. Anything else is goal displacement. 

- Prof Ivor Sarakinsky is with the Wits School of Governance.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24

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