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Chief justice Raymond Zondo. Picture: VELI NHLAPO
Chief justice Raymond Zondo. Picture: VELI NHLAPO

In the findings of the Zondo state capture commission President Cyril Ramaphosa has the diagnosis. And, depending on who you listen to, the resulting prognosis ranges from progressive decline to terminal. In October, when Ramaphosa outlines his plans for implementing the commission’s recommendations, the urgent question will be how his administration chooses to medicate.

The commission provided a credible baseline for the reversal of state capture, but the implementation of its findings and recommendations will need to be geared towards the kind of sustained, structural reform that will leave the state in a position to resist and reverse capture over the long term.

After all, in the dark waters of SA’s fragile democratic project most of the commission’s work shone a light on only the very tip of the gargantuan state capture iceberg.

Speaking at a conference convened by two of the organisations leading civil society’s effort at and after the commission — the Public Affairs Research Institute and the Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution — the commission’s head of investigations, Terence Nombembe, called the tip of that iceberg the “visible and indisputable matters of wrongdoing and self-interest”.

But in those reaches of the state machinery beyond the commission’s scope — provincial and municipal governments, the almost countless state-owned entities of which ordinary South Africans are scarcely aware — public processes and resources remain rigged in favour of private interests.

So even if — and it is an “if” likely too big to be answered in our lifetime — SA is able to hold the McKinseys, Chinese Rails and T-Systems of the world to account (much less the banks and law firms that facilitated their crimes), state capture is pernicious far beyond the limits of those levels of blue-chip thievery.

Public procurement

At the forefront of the response Ramaphosa’s outlines to parliament will have to be public procurement, where most of SA’s corruption plays out, and the politicisation of the bureaucracies responsible for it.

Public procurement is tied into virtually every state function, from fiscal policy to environmental protection, from building houses and to paying social grants and industrial development. In 2017 government channelled nearly R1-trillion (almost 20% of GDP) through public procurement, dwarfing the public sector wage bill.

Of the many words one might use to describe the country’s public procurement machinery, gargantuan is at the top of the list. But considering that this operation remains largely paper-based and decentralised, the preferred description of the National Treasury’s former chief procurement officer, Kenneth Brown, may be a more helpful one: “archaic”.

The making of SA’s archaic public procurement has been long and complicated. The remaking of it will be no less so. The country’s first democratically elected government, tasked with bringing unwieldy former homeland governments under the administration of a central democratic state, among other things, had good reason to mistrust the vestiges of apartheid-era bureaucracy and bureaucrats.

So followed a dramatic turnover in personnel while outsourcing was gaining favour. In the making of the new SA state the politicisation of the public service and the decline of  administrative capacity were birthed as twins.

Municipal bureaucracy

The now well-entrenched politicisation of SA’s public service is neither a problem of wayward individuals nor of ANC cadre deployment. Ryan Brunette, a Public Affairs Research Institute research associate, calls these “a sideshow” to the more pressing issue of legal reforms that would institute checks against the pervasive practice. Whether or not political parties keep minutes of it, they are all engaged in one form of cadre deployment or another.

One need only despair at the ongoing and destructive jockeying to appoint party candidates into the upper echelons of Johannesburg’s municipal bureaucracy, for instance, where the line separating politics and administration is paper thin.

One result of this long, knotted process is a splintered, complicated public procurement legal regime. State contracts are governed by more than 20 pieces of primary legislation, and three times as many pieces of subordinate legislation. Efforts to unify this divided legal and regulatory landscape are well under way in the draft Public Procurement Bill. But gaps remain.

An earlier version of the bill did not expressly include functionality as a criteria for public procurement, for instance. In the past, disregarding functionality in awarding contracts has, according to the Public Affairs Research Institute, “generated cut-throat competition, in which bidders attempt to meet the minimum specification and then drive down prices in a predatory fashion, to a point that is often unsustainable for firm reproduction”.

The jury is still out on where a necessary, new and overriding regulatory authority for procurement might be housed institutionally to insulate it from political interference. It is only one entry though, on a long list of how public procurement and the bureaucracies overseeing it must be reformed.

Infamous leitmotif

Processes of procurement need to be made more legible and traceable, for instance. Mechanisms of contract management need to be strengthened. Political powers of appointment and promotion must be curbed, checked and balanced.

Despite former president Jacob Zuma’s infamous leitmotif that the ANC will rule until Jesus returns, parties and politics will come and go. Bureaucracies however, will stay. And if they are to deliver on their developmental and redistributive mandates under the conditions of competition in which they now operate, insulating them could not be more urgent.

The ravages of state capture become more material daily. They are mapped across the carcasses of Gauteng’s many ransacked Metrorail stations, and play out in the sound of whispered prayers and crossed fingers when the lights miraculously stay on for the first 10 minutes of load-shedding. The impulse for quick fixes, most popularly to hand state functions over to the private sector, is strong. It is one Ramaphosa should avoid.

Reform must instead be geared towards enabling the state to play a developmental role and to better moderate SA’s devastating inequality. Change must be achievable rather than utopian, and the country’s political possibilities should be expanded in steps, not bounds.

We will know more about how one of the more important of those steps will be taken when Ramaphosa tables his administration’s intentions in parliament.

• Webster is a freelance writer commissioned by the Public Affairs Research Institute to attend its state capture conference, which took place on September 14 and 15.

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