It was Archimedes, the original naked scientist, who said: “If I can find the leverage point, I can move the world.” His famous “law of the lever” implores us to seek those solutions that require minimum effort while yielding maximum benefit. The ease of rolling a heavy ball of steel with a lever versus the hard labour of trying to push it, is a common example.

Understandably, and with good reason, the prevailing discourse on the rampant Covid-19 corruption is focused on social mores, lifestyle audits and the heavy-lifting expected of the law enforcement agencies. But any reprobate with half a chance to line his pockets will know that it may be several election cycles before the law catches up with the thousands of corruption incidents from the past 12 years — and only then start attending to the class of 2020.

The recent awarding of tenders in favour of friends and family members of politicians presents a challenge that is wrapped in the opportunity to explore alternative remedies to tackle weaknesses in the supply chain process, particularly at the bid adjudication stage.

As the moral edifice of our society erodes, Archimedean ingenuity is called for to confront this festering scourge. The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) offers a smorgasbord of digital tools to disrupt the process weaknesses that enable large-scale plunder. Blockchain and other 4IR platforms are disrupting industries from banking to voting, education and health care.

Secure platform

The practice of favouring vested interests can be disrupted by transferring the responsibility for tender adjudication from the entity that issues the tender to an equivalent entity in another province or municipality — facilitated through a digital platform.

If we dial back to the genesis of the Covid-19 personal protective equipment (PPE) tenders, the Gauteng health department would issue the tenders via a secure blockchain platform where bidders would submit their responses. The bids would be anonymised on the platform and randomly directed to a similar entity for adjudication — that is, any of the other eight provincial health departments.

Once the successful bidder has been selected, the Gauteng health department — the one that will be saddled with a service provider not of its own choosing — will be accorded the right to appeal against the award. Broad-based BEE (BB-BEE), tax and other requirements would remain within the purview of the National Treasury’s central supplier database or a regulator, as proposed in the new Public Procurement Bill.

By removing bidders’ details from the tender responses, and randomly selecting an equivalent health department for bid adjudication, it becomes possible to interrupt the link between decision-makers and their cronies.

This should give respite to public servants, who are often leant upon by ministers and others in positions of power to break the law. It will also bring some relief to law enforcement agencies, which are faced with a new avalanche of Covid-related graft cases and a growing mountain of state capture files.

There will be instances in which this approach may not be suitable — as with defence contracts, for which there is no equivalent entity with the necessary competence outside the defence ministry. However, the procurement needs of the various parts of the government tend to overlap, especially across the 278 municipalities.

Digitalisation and a process rethink resound with the auditor-general’s call for the introduction of “preventive controls” at local government to stem the tide of irregular expenditure — R32bn for the 2018/2019 reporting period.

The perennial question is whether the political will exists to properly disrupt the status quo. And whether political parties can wean themselves off the addiction to public funds as a source of income. We may already have passed the inflection point. Endemic graft and the economic fallout wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic portend a humanitarian disaster.

In his June supplementary budget, finance minister Tito Mboweni raised the spectre of the recent Greek economic meltdown, in which “pensioners had their salaries and pensions slashed”. He warned of “doom and despair” unless we urgently correct our course.

A new revolution, one that is of the digital variety, may just be the lever that rights the ship of state.

• Phala consults to the government and the financial sector. He writes on digital innovation and strategic change.

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