Lawson Naidoo | It's time for a single agency model to fight corruption

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A "single agency model" is needed to fight corruption which has permeated the ANC, and government as well as in the private sector, argues Lawson Naidoo.

The principle of accountability is one of the founding values and cornerstones of our constitutional framework.

As the country faces yet another feeding frenzy at the tender trough, this time related to essential supplies to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, we must ask: "Who is accountable for fighting corruption in South Africa; where does the buck stop?"

Clearly not with the government or President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has moved on from being "shocked" to "outraged", and condemns such corruption as "unconscionable". Recent revelations and allegations point to the culpability and involvement of senior members of government in tender fraud and irregularities.

Over three months ago, Ramaphosa told the nation: "We are going to keep a hawk's eye on how the money is going to be spent... we need to put in place systems, on a proactive basis, to prevent the abuse of resources that we are putting in place, so that money doesn't end up in people's pockets."

This quite evidently did not happen or was totally ineffective. Who is going to account for this failure?

Cheap goals

Parliament and its committees will hold meetings to hear information that is already in the public domain, to similarly express its concern and urge the law enforcement agencies to "leave no stone unturned" in apprehending those involved.

Opposition parties will seek to score cheap goals against the ruling party, whose defence is a shambles. They may end up feeling smug, and the ANC reeling from a drubbing, but still top of the league. There will still be no accountability to the people of South Africa.

The governing party will be engaged in a blame game - where did they concede most goals, down the left or right flanks or straight down the middle. Its Integrity Commission has no capacity or teeth; is inconsistent in dealing with members who bring the party into disrepute and cannot be relied upon to ensure accountability, especially when the National Executive Committee (NEC) can summarily ignore or overturn its recommendations. The NEC said this week that it was "outraged and deeply embarrassed" by these allegations of corruption against its members, but bluntly refused to really do anything about it, shooting down a proposal to tighten regulations preventing family members of public servants doing business with the state.

READ | Analysis: 'Outraged and embarrassed': Could this be the ANC'S most dishonest statement ever?

The NEC statement issued in the name of the secretary-general, Ace Magashule, went on to say, "The moral standing of the ANC has been severely damaged by the conduct of some of its members - who, in fact, do not deserve to be in our ranks", without a shred of irony as the Zondo Commission was simultaneously hearing evidence regarding the "asbestos heist" in which the former Free State Premier is deeply implicated.

In the face of years of inaction on dealing with corruption, it is a statement that lacks any credibility, and has largely attracted ridicule. South Africans are gatvol - this is no time for pious statements.

So what about the law enforcement agencies?

It is common cause that they were severely emaciated under the previous Zuma administration, and there have been sincere efforts to begin their rehabilitation. How have they fared thus far?

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is primarily responsible for taking cases to court, following investigation by other bodies so it cannot be held directly responsible for corruption. Although in the past the SIU complained that dockets referred to the NPA were not prosecuted. It is now equipped with a specialist Investigating Directorate to investigate and prosecute state capture and corruption matters. It is under-resourced, focused on matters arising from the Zondo Commission of Inquiry, and has a limited time frame. It has also been further hampered, until very recently, by its inability to access information from the Zondo investigations team.

The Hawks 

The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) are, on paper, the primary anti-corruption weapon in our arsenal against corruption, but it must also deal with organised crime and other priority crimes which apparently now includes selected domestic disputes. Located within the SAPS, it does not possess the necessary independence, let alone capacity to swoop on tenderpreneurs and other politically exposed persons. Like the NPA under Shaun Abrahams and Nomgcobo Jiba, the Hawks were hollowed out under the former leadership of Berning Ntlemeza, and are in a process of slow recovery.

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is a statutory body to investigate corruption, malpractice, and maladministration. It functions at the behest of the President who must issue a proclamation under the Special Investigating Unit and Special Tribunals Act  before any investigation can commence. Despite assuring the nation in April that a Covid-19 anti-corruption task team would be established, the President only authorised the SIU to investigate Covid-19 related tender irregularities two weeks ago. Why the delay, Mr President?

Two Chapter Nine Institutions, the Auditor General and the Public Protector also play important roles in monitoring and investigating acts of corruption and maladministration. Whilst these are formally independent institutions, fighting corruption is not their primary mandate.

READ | Cyril Ramaphosa: Profiting from a pandemic is like a pack of hyenas circling a prey

In his weekly letter to the nation on Monday 3 August President Cyril Ramaphosa wrote:

"As a country, we have done much to turn our back on that era by disrupting and dismantling the networks that had infiltrated government, state companies and even our law enforcement agencies to loot public resources. 

"We have rebuilt vital institutions like the National Prosecuting Authority, SA Revenue Service and the Hawks. Through the establishment of bodies like the Investigating Directorate in the NPA, we have strengthened the hand of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute these crimes. And through the establishment of the SIU Special Tribunal, we have increased our capacity to get back funds stolen from the state.

"But it is clear that we need to do more. And that we need to act more decisively.

"Experience here and in many other countries shows that a multidisciplinary approach to tackling the commission of alleged criminality is needed for the fight against corruption to be successful. A broad range of investigative and prosecutorial capabilities need to be brought together under one roof."

It is in this context that we must see the calls for a multi-disciplinary agency.

The ANC's NEC this week also proposed a "multi-disciplinary agency" to tackle corruption. This holds out some hope for a more effective institutional response to turning the tide against the tenderpreneurs and looters, both in the private and public sectors. A prosecution-led investigative agency would mark a significant step forward, subject to its structure and location, and most importantly its independence and insulation from political influence.

READ | Mandy Wiener: After years of inaction on corruption, why should we believe the president?

That would not, however, tick all the boxes to effectively combat corruption. Aside from investigations and prosecution there are two other aspects of fighting corruption that need to be addressed, and no less urgently.

The first is the prevention of corruption, putting in place mechanisms and norms to minimise the risks of corrupt practices, including transparency in procurement processes. This is a responsibility that currently sits with National Treasury, but with the demise of the Central Procurement Office, it is one that is ill-equipped to execute.

Public education and awareness

The other prong of an anti-corruption strategy is public education and awareness. None of the bodies mentioned above focus on this aspect; it is largely left to civil society organisations to fill this void.

CASAC therefore proposes that a solution to these deficiencies would be to adopt the "single agency model" - to create a dedicated, independent anti-corruption agency, mandated to combat corruption by following a three-pronged strategy of enforcement, prevention and public education. Such a body would be solely responsible and accountable for tackling corruption.

We need a systematic overhaul of our anti-corruption strategy and architecture to tackle a systemic and entrenched network of graft. When the President says we need to do more, and act more decisively, I would argue that the single agency model is the route to go.

- Lawson Naidoo is the Executive Secretary of CASAC.

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