Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

One of the great ironies about SA is that while transparency levels are relatively high — were it not for media freedom, state capture may have slipped under the radar altogether —accountability is almost nonexistent.

That dichotomy has sent a strong message to the public and private sectors that though corruption is frowned upon, it is not punished in practice. As a result, under the scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma administration unscrupulous private-sector players sought to make hay while the sun shone and grab as much as they could.

Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has vowed to reverse the damage and ensure accountability. Thus on Sunday, the presidency announced the creation of a special tribunal whose mandate, ultimately, will be to assist the state with recovering funds and assets lost to corruption.

The special tribunal, which will be run by eight judges, will fast-track the finalisation of civil claims — those linked to corrupt state contracts — before the Special Investigating Unit (SIU).

“Fast-tracking these matters through the special tribunal will enable the SIU to recover monies and/or assets lost by state institutions through irregular and corrupt means, thus ensuring that those who are responsible for the loss of monies and/or assets by state institutions are held accountable,” the presidency said.

Giving the SIU more teeth and establishing an investigating directorate at the National Prosecuting Authority are at least steps in the right direction towards accountability and stamping out the state’s endemic procurement problems.

Nurturing a culture of integrity at the nexus between the public and private sectors, however, remains a mammoth task.

According to Stephen van Coller, the CEO of technology group EOH since September 2018, large private institutions were bound to become microcosms of the sickly country. Last week, Van Coller told Business Day that EOH, which grew through a series of acquisitions and now consists of 273 legal entities, would almost definitely have housed “a few bad apples”.

Referencing disclosures at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, Van Coller said that with its 11,500-strong workforce in SA, EOH had likely become “a little bit representative of the population” during a very corrupt period in the country’s history.

“When you go through a difficult 10 years, you’re going to have some contagion, and I don’t think it’s just us.”

Some private companies, including controversial state contractor Bosasa, thrived for years on allegedly dodgy government contracts. That company, now known as Africa Global Operations, has gone into liquidation after its former bosses testified at the Zondo commission.

Public-sector work makes up a relatively small part of EOH’s business, but those operations are taking their toll on the wider group.

With its share price languishing 90% below the highs reached in late 2016, investors have become skittish about the company, which has faced numerous allegations of corruption linked to government projects. EOH has retained law firm ENSafrica to probe its past bids and contracts with the government for any possible wrongdoing.

One of those is an allegedly irregular and inflated deal with SA’s department of defence, a contract that has cost EOH its reseller partnership with US technology giant Microsoft, according to a report from TechCentral.

The Johannesburg-based technology news website published a letter from Van Coller to stakeholders on Friday, in which the CEO said the company was focusing on “less than six public-sector contracts deemed necessary for detailed review”. Of those, law firm ENSafrica had already concluded one investigation and was close to wrapping up two others, he said in the letter.

The investigations concerned only a handful of people in a division focused on the public sector, which accounts for less than 12% of group turnover, said Van Coller. Implicated staff had either been suspended or had resigned.

Van Coller also said EOH’s new app for whistle-blowers, which is monitored by an independent law firm, “has already yielded two internal potential frauds for us”.

While that level of transparency is commendable, the real prize is accountability, without which corruption will continue to thrive.