New auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke in Johannesburg. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
New auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke in Johannesburg. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke released her office’s annual report on the 2019-20 local government audit outcomes last week. Among its damning findings were:

  • “Nobody really knows for sure” what happened to about R5.5bn disbursed by national government to 22 of the country’s most opaque municipalities;
  • Many municipalities in the Free State failed to submit any financial statements;
  • Most of these municipalities were plagued by leadership instability, poor oversight by councils, significant financial health problems, protests and strikes, a lack of consequences, and ineffective interventions;
  • One in four municipalities faces financial ruin and there is “significant doubt that they will be able to continue operating as a going concern in the near future”;
  • Irregular expenditure reached R26bn and this is generally not being investigated, contributing to a cycle of non-accountability;
  • “Serious health and other risks” have arisen from a lack of maintenance of municipal infrastructure;
  • Some municipalities deduct tax from workers’ salaries but do not pay it to the SA Revenue Service, nor do they transfer employee contributions to their pension funds;
  • More than R1bn was spent on consultants in the 2019-20 financial year, ostensibly to help local government officials compile financial statements, even though finance departments are paid to do this work;
  • About 22 municipalities — almost one in 10 — received a “disclaimer of audit opinion”; and
  • Government employees are still trying to do business with the state despite this now being illegal.

The report made headlines for a few days, then it was business as usual. Perhaps South Africans are simply exhausted. If this was taking place in almost any other country, the outcry would have been followed by people going to jail or — in the case of China — even being executed. Yet in SA, apart from the usual expressions of shock by politicians, nothing happens.

As professionals from all spheres we need to ask ourselves this pertinent question: what are we doing to ensure sustainable compliance with laws, rules and regulations? What role are we, in our different fields, playing to help the country deliver on the aspirations of its citizens?

Are we playing a proactive role to create a better country, one that aims to improve the lives of citizens by driving development that is inclusive and sustainable? We are shaped by our societies; from an early age we are raised by our villages (communities), as the African adage aptly puts it. These are the same communities that directly or indirectly — by paying taxes, for example — invest in our enlightenment through education.

Society’s expectation of us is that after we have acquired the necessary skills in our chosen professions we show up and add value to the project of developing the country and improving lives. We should add value not only through our skills, but also through the posture we choose to adopt as we conduct our work.

It is professionals who become the leaders charged with the responsibility of running our public and private institutions, which are there to shape the direction of our country’s economy and development.

In this context, a few critical questions confront us: do we choose to adopt a posture of service and adding value, or one of accumulation and extraction? Do we measure our success by how much value we’ve managed to extract for ourselves and our families? Or do we measure it by the contribution we make — to our professions, other people, institutions, society?

As professionals, have we embraced a commitment to technical excellence for its own sake? Or are we seized with finding ways to use our expertise to serve society and make our own contribution to improving lives?

Do we stand up for what we know to be right, thus driving ethical practices, service delivery and accountability, and ensuring we use our voices to improve the lot of the voiceless? When we do stand up and advocate these “right things”, do we hold ourselves to the same standards? Do we walk the talk?

The auditor-general’s report covers institutions of government, so it is easy for people who are not public servants to lament and criticise the accountability failures. But let’s consider the role of professionals and leaders of institutions in the private sector. The problems with supply chain management (non-competitive processes, extension of preferential contracts, non compliance with local content rules, preferential points system) all involve the private sector as the other side of the transaction.

Are some in the private sector trying to make a quick buck out of this desperate situation? Are private-sector professionals paying more than lip service to upholding the rule of law? If consultants charge the government R1bn to compile financial statements, is this serving the community?

Are we, who lead these companies, meeting the expectations of society? Are we adding value and actively contributing to the world we want, the SA we want? It is important that we, as professionals, while rightly demanding  accountability from the government, also look ourselves in the mirror and reflect on our own contribution to the rot in our country.

Let’s make the right choices.

• Matabane is CEO of the Black Business Council

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