Mandy Wiener | A pandemic is not your turn to eat

A selection of PPE gear.
A selection of PPE gear.
Karwai Tang/WireImage

It is disgusting to think that covidpreneurs thought the pandemic was a time for them to enrich themselves, writes Mandy Wiener. 

Michela Wrong’s thrilling book It’s Our Turn To Eat tells the story of Kenya’s anti-corruption czar John Githongo and his efforts to stamp out graft under the Mwai Kibaki regime from 2003 to 2005.

What struck me most about Githongo’s whistleblowing tale is the sheer acceptability and indifference with which Kibaki’s lieutenants in government went about looting public funds. They merely picked up where their predecessors under Daniel arap Moi left off.

Despite coming into power on an anti-sleaze ticket, they were the architects of what became known as the Anglo Leasing affair – a scandal which saw the awarding of a huge contract by the Kenyan government to a company that simply did not exist.

It was, as the Kenyan adage goes, their turn to eat.

I thought of John Githongo and the Kibaki regime last week as President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke out strongly against corruption involving Covid-related tenders.

"But what concerns me, and what concerns all South Africans, are those instances where funds are stolen, where they are misused, where goods are overpriced, where food parcels are diverted from needy households – where there is corruption and mismanagement of public funds. Increasingly, we are hearing allegations about fraudulent UIF claims, overpricing of goods and services, violation of emergency procurement regulations, collusion between officials and service providers, abuse of food parcel distribution and the creation of fake non-profit organisations to access relief funding," said the president on Thursday night.

In his speech, he announced a proclamation allowing the Special Investigating Unit to investigate Covid-related corruption. It’s a wide scope for the SIU which may well leave the unit stretched and beyond capacity.

SIU team ready 

Head of the SIU, advocate Andy Mothibi, assured me last week that his team was ready and well-resourced enough to go after the criminals. He allayed suggestions that the public should be sceptical or cynical about the capacity of the state to stem the flow of funds, and that anyone would ever be held responsible.

But I thought about John Githongo this week again when Sandile Zungu, the president of the Black Business Council, spoke out again about what the Sunday Times dubbed the "vultures" who are feasting on Covid-19 misery.

According to the newspaper, an estimated R2.2 billion has been gobbled up by those predators who are attacking these tenders. Gauteng Health MEC Bandile Masuku quickly issued a statement denying the allegations and responding to suggestions that his own integrity was in doubt.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni tweeted on Sunday night: "A tender is an ethical contract. It is not a blank cheque to deceive and steal. And stealing from unwell people! During a Covid-19 pandemic! Please people. What kind of people are these criminals?! The wrongs being done by unscrupulous thieves must be dealt with decisively. It is time that leadership led without fear, favour or prejudice. Watch the space."

What is quite clear is that these insatiable "vultures", the covidpreneurs who rubbed their hands in glee at the opportunity presented by a pandemic, believe it is their turn to eat.

It is sickening, revolting, disgusting to think that these individuals have siphoned off money meant to go to protecting frontline workers with PPE, or to staffing and supplying hospitals at a time when resources are stretched to the very limit. It is also unscrupulous for those who are defrauding UIF funds to be doing so at a time when millions are out of work, starving, struggling to buy food and desperate for these payments from the state.

A pandemic is not the time for you to have your turn to eat. It is astonishing that these people see and act on an opportunity to chow public funds at a time when government is trying to stop people from dying from a virus and attempting to resuscitate an economy in cardiac arrest.

These vultures must face the full onslaught of the SIU and the NPA – but most importantly, this action must result in prosecutions and convictions. It’s an unnecessary diversion for investigators and prosecutors who are already trying to keep from sinking under the weight of state capture cases. These resources now have to be redirected to these corruption cases whilst we are still waiting for action on SOE looting at Eskom and Prasa, etc.

It takes a special kind of sick human to steal money meant for fighting a pandemic. But having said that, they are not the only ones who are leveraging a pandemic for their own benefit.

We have seen many sectors of society seeing this crisis as an opportunity. Taxi associations and bosses have leveraged the opportunity to show government who is in charge in the industry by holding a sword over their heads. They have maximised the crisis presented by the lockdown to remind politicians that they hold the power and won’t be dictated to.

Show of power 

Similarly the teachers' unions have capitalised on the crisis and the concerns around the health of their members to show Minister Angie Motshekga and the government who wields the ultimate power in the education sector.

There is no doubt that the President’s announcement to close schools was based on a political decision. If the Cabinet based its decision on science and the advice of medical experts, schools would remain open. But instead, the unions have leveraged the opportunity to issue an ultimatum to government.

A pandemic is not a time to capitalise or to take advantage, to leverage opportunities or to stuff your own pockets.

It is a time for us to act in the common interest of humanity, rather than in a narcissistic self-serving direction. It is not merely a time for the next cabal to have their turn to eat.

It is evident that government's checks and balances to ensure good governance and accountability with the administration of public funds has failed yet again. We should not be at this point when so many warnings were issued and alarm bells raised.

Everyone has feasted enough. Their appetites of the vultures satiated, we now need to hold them to account and ensure those who need the help the most receive it.

- Mandy Wiener is a journalist, author and the host of the Midday Report on 702. Follow her on Twitter @MandyWiener.

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