OPINION | Pregala Pillay & Evan Mantzaris: Covid-19 was another opportunity for the corrupt to loot

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Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke addressing members of the media at a briefing on the second Covid-19 report held at Tshedimosetso House, in Pretoria yesterday.
Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke addressing members of the media at a briefing on the second Covid-19 report held at Tshedimosetso House, in Pretoria yesterday.

The Covid-19 pandemic created opportunities for corrupt individuals, groups, syndicates as well as public and private sector "mediators" who couldn't resist sticking their hands in the cookie jar, writes University of Stellenbosch's Pregala Pillay and Mangosuthu University of Technology’s Evan Mantzaris  

Corruption continues unabated even as we reel from the devastating impact of a pandemic that has disrupted our lives and caused a lot of misery.

On African Anti-Corruption Day (11 July), we are again reminded of how this scourge exacerbates our suffering. The theft and thuggery of unscrupulous people completely negated our government's efforts to deal decisively with the pandemic and to support the sick, the poor, the homeless and other marginalised groups.

Since the start of the lockdown in March last year, various government initiatives were supplemented by the R500-billion Covid-19 relief package aimed at providing food parcels for more than 16 million beneficiaries; increases in social grants (for example, the increase in child support grant and the R350 provided as a social relief grant); billions for wages and businesses and priority for health matters; and the Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme for those whose salaries were affected.

Additionally, R20 billion was allocated to municipalities for the provision of emergency water supplies, the sanitisation of public transport, and food and shelter for the homeless. A total of R50 billion in relief was set aside to assist all those who have been seriously affected by the pandemic.

Opportunity for corrupt individuals 

Unfortunately, these measures also created opportunities for corrupt individuals, groups, syndicates as well as public and private sector "mediators" who couldn't resist sticking their hands in the cookie jar. We saw this in, among others, the way food parcels have been distributed, and the Gauteng Education Department's R431 million "school decontamination" scandal.

The fact that a reputable company such as Dis-Chem had to pay a significant amount of money after the Competition Tribunal found it guilty of excessive pricing of masks is not really that different from the exposure of the Gauteng Member of the Executive Council for Health and his two most senior administrators for "helping" a private company to two personal protective equipment (PPE) supply contracts worth R125 million.

ALSO READ: OPINION |  Corruption in South Africa: The politics, the law and all the shenanigans in between

Following the exposé of the "conflict of interest" in the case, another company, described as "a family connection" won the award.

It has become common knowledge that such instances of corruption and greed are drops in a massive ocean as the Auditor-General of South Africa's first special report during the first lockdown period deals with the management of funds set aside for the government’s Covid-19 response.

The findings regarding the management of R147 billion that was set to cover 16 of the government's most important Covid-19 initiatives highlighted an abundance of deficiencies in the supply chain processes that were accompanied by the introduction of emergency procurement processes for PPE and the subsequent unfair practices, overpricing and side-stepping of supply chain management legislation.

Amongst some of the most "daring" corrupt acts were 4 161 payments amounting to R30 million made to individuals with invalid identity numbers when checked against the database of the Department of Home Affairs and the R141 million UIF payment to 35 043 applicants who received benefits from other state institutions.

Overpricing and unjustifiable allocation of the special Covid-19 budget 

Corruption at municipalities became the "news of the day". During the first lockdown, it was reported that at one municipality in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) irregular spending of R75.9 million was against National Treasury guidelines on procedures - specific to the Covid-19 pandemic - to be followed when purchasing goods and allocating business to suppliers.

The amount was due to perpetual instances of overpricing, unjustifiable allocation of the special Covid-19 budget for normal operations of the municipality, City staff being part of the companies supplying services to the City, suppliers paid way above the price agreed to in the letter of award and awarding of business to contractors, not on the central supplier database approved by National Treasury.

It was revealed that 80% of paid suppliers were not part of the council's consolidated procurement database for Covid-19.

Key municipal units and sections were culprits, including Business Support, the Mayor's Office, Good Governance, Business Support, Economic Development, Community Participation, Safer Cities, the Metro Police and Housing, Electricity, Water and Sanitation, and Retail and Bulk Markets.

ALSO READ: Corruption in SA: The politics, the law and all the shenanigans in between

An official report on special expenses revealed that R68.8 million was spent on food and temporary accommodation (marquees) for the homeless, and showed that most invoices were not stamped and were dated before the requisition and pro forma order dates.

In addition, uniforms for Expanded Public Works Programme employees were bought using the Covid-19 budget, even though this was not an emergency. In a bid to justify inflated prices, volunteering employees temporarily drawn from the SAPS, Social Development and Health departments were classified as VIPs so that they would be provided with meals that were priced far higher than those served to the homeless. 

At the same KZN municipality, irregular expenditure had ballooned from the previous financial year of 2017/18 where it stood at R733 million to more than R2 billion in the 2018/2019 audit period.

The Auditor-General recommended that the municipality take action against the culprits, but it never did. 

This is just one of many instances where corruption at municipalities across South Africa go unpunished.

The scourge continues! And so does the struggle to eliminate it!

- Pregala Pillay is a professor at the School of Public Leadership in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU). 

- Evan Mantzaris is a retired professor at Mangosuthu University of Technology and also an extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University.

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