Mcebisi Ndletyana: State of disaster a perfect cover for (more) cronyism, looting of relief funds

Residents of the Olievenhoutbosch township in Centurion, queue on May 2, 2020 during a food distribution drive. (FernandaPesce Blazquez, AFP)
Residents of the Olievenhoutbosch township in Centurion, queue on May 2, 2020 during a food distribution drive. (FernandaPesce Blazquez, AFP)

Government leaders have amassed a great deal of goodwill for how they have handled this pandemic, but the internal disagreements over the sale of cigarettes give a hint to persistent divisions and spiteful ministers, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.

Combating the outbreak of Covid-19 demands different conduct and institutional behaviour.

Political leadership has surprisingly risen to the occasion, whilst malpractices that stain our institutions have become even more glaring.

Surviving the pandemic is not the end.

We are creating new problems as we fight it. How leaders overcome them will depend on how they acquaint themselves throughout this challenging period.  

For a country distinguished by exquisite leaders, the past 10 years have been a nightmare.

Decorum and intellect became a cause for ridicule.

Hard work and excellence invited scorn and stigma.

The ordinary and mediocre thrived. Obscenity and pomposity became national values, rewarded with celebrity status.

It was a race right to the bottom.

Courts held us back from the abyss, and the instinct for self-preservation convinced those with political influence to redirect their voting fodder towards electing the sound among them.  

Covid-19 found South Africa in the midst of self-recovery. Sordid revelations at the Zondo commission reminded us of how much we had lost ourselves.

The dastardliness of the misdeeds sowed doubts over whether we would still recover ourselves. Is there really a way back from such depth of depravity, we wondered?

Other countries elsewhere in the world never recovered themselves. Depravity became a normalcy.  

Spectacularly, Covid-19 enabled us to recover a bit of our magnificence.

Our democracy was spawned by sound judgement.

It was the ability to suppress the base instincts of the moment, vengeance for injustices, and look further into the future. Only through consideration of factual conditions does one make decisions that lead to a desired outcome.

Local and provincial leaders have failed

That is how the political leadership has dealt with this epidemic.

They heeded the empirical lessons offered by science. China displayed them all. We reacted timeously and boldly. Lockdown wreaks havoc in other areas of life, but necessary to save human life.

Now we may just avert the worst that this virus can unleash.  

Other layers of government, however, have not been similarly impressive.

Some provincial and local leaders have not only performed below par, but have also shown they are untouched by human tragedy. Eastern Cape leaders, for one, have failed their province.

Their performance has defied the seriousness of infections in their province. 

Doctors did not have protective gear and their constant pleas were unheeded.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize found the number of reported infections and deaths nonsensical. They were either under-reported or were simply incorrect.

It took Mkhize’s visit to Port Elizabeth for things to change. He summoned national officials to make up for what was lacking in the province. 

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize in Nelson Mandela Bay. (Supplied, Eastern Cape Department of Health)

As if the poor handling of the epidemic was not sufficient indication of disinterest, the MEC for Health, Sindiswa Gomba, decided to tell the entire country that she was fed up with all the reporting and questions about the pandemic.

Gomba was part of the team of MECs who Mkhize convened to provide a national picture of where the country stood. It happened inadvertedly, of course, but her comment was truthful.

After the briefing and unaware that her microphone was still active she murmured to a colleague in IsiXhosa, andidikwe - I’m so fed up. Not all provinces value competence, nor do their provincial leaders mind the harm caused by incompetence.     

If not incompetence, the handling of the relief provided by the government has also exposed the depth of debauchery among councillors. That some lack scruples is not a surprise.

Arbitrary powers

The Auditor General tells us annually how much of the municipal budgets has gone missing, wasted or simply awarded to companies owned by officials and councillors.

In about two-thirds of the municipalities, officials do not even bother to account, nor are councillors interested in finding out. They are joined by financial interests in the municipality.

Just this past financial year alone about R1 billion worth of contracts were won by companies that involved councillors and officials. Now they have been given further responsibilities to combat the spread of Covid-19.

These involve delivering water in tanks, sanitising public transport facilities and passengers as well as distributing food parcels. For all this, the government has provided them R20 billion.  

For institutions already fraught with impropriety under normal conditions, there is a great likelihood that the relief intended for the needy might be abused.

Because the government has invoked the Disaster Management Act, normal processes no longer apply. Things are meant to happen expeditiously to meet the urgent and dire needs.

Instead of advertising tenders, officials can handpick companies and tender committees may not meet to scrutinise the suitability of the preferred companies.

Officials, some of whom work in cahoots with councillors, have arbitrary powers to award cronies.  

Because the main goal is siphoning, instead of providing relief, the assistance is likely to be poor. They may purchase less quantities of sanitisers or foodstuff that has expired in order to pay less, and pocket more.

Some of the foodstuff distributed to people has already been found to be off.

Other councillors have taken some of food parcels for themselves. They are giving them families and friends, whilst saving some for later to handout to supporters in return for votes at their elective conferences.

Because of the restrictions on gatherings, councils do not convene meetings to enable the conscientious among the councillors to ask questions.  

Unscrupulous politicians

To pre-empt the large-scale embezzlement that might happen the Auditor General has proposed new measures.

These involve forming teams made up of diverse skills, which would be based at municipalities and audit the expenditure as it happens. The idea is not to wait for the completion of expenditure before auditing.

Monies will have been embezzled by then, and people gone without receiving relief. The plan is to refer cases of impropriety for instant prosecutions, which would hopefully deter others with similar ill-intent.

The government is going along with the AG’s proposals.

Whether or not they are actually allowed to implement their plans at all is something else altogether. Unscrupulous politicians and officials have now taken to chasing away auditors in order to conceal their malfeasance.  

Checks and balances are needed to safeguard the relief funding. (iStock)

What South African leaders are able to achieve, after we have eliminated this virus, will depend on the final verdict of their conduct throughout this.

And, there are tough times ahead. A substantial number of companies will close and unemployment will soar. Revenue will dwindle drastically, threatening provision of social services and grants.

To overcome these hardships the government will call upon the wealthy to continue giving and invest in the economy. To those experiencing tough times, it will plead for patience and more sacrifices.

It will need support from other stakeholders to make drastic changes to improve the economy. None will heed the calls or show understanding if the leaders lack credibility.

Government leaders had amassed a great deal of goodwill for how they had handled this pandemic, but the internal disagreements over the sale of cigarettes give a hint of persistent divisions and spiteful ministers.

Society will not give its leaders what they do not deserve. More than ever in her history, South Africa needs decisive, unified and credible leadership.   

- Mcebisi Ndletyana is associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg and the author of a new book, Anatomy of the ANC in Power: Insights from Port Elizabeth, 1990 – 2019 (HSRC Press).     

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