In the week when SA learnt that 2.2-million jobs were lost in the second quarter, one could easily have written it off as another of a long list of similarly depressing weeks.
But President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government, under mounting pressure to make public a post-lockdown economic revival plan, managed to pull off a hat-trick of wins.
On Wednesday, the day after Stats SA data laid bare the lockdown jobs catastrophe, the Hawks began swooping on alleged masterminds behind a scheme to siphon more than R250m from the state through a corrupt tender to audit and remove lung cancer-causing asbestos roofing on homes in the Free State.
Senior government officials and business people were taken into custody during an operation over the 2014 tender, and are facing 60 charges covering corruption, fraud and money laundering.
At more or less the same time, former senior MP Vincent Smith was arrested to face charges that he looked the other way when Bosasa, now African Global, ripped off nearly R50m from SA Police Service tenders in exchange for R800,000 in kickbacks.
It’s good to see suspects such as Smith and Edwin Sodi, an ANC funder known for flaunting his allegedly ill-gotten wealth with flashy cars and expensive properties, are facing charges. But importantly, it has given us hope that the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) are making progress in rebuilding the agencies, which were almost hollowed out by the corruption cancer that corroded almost every layer of the government under the despicable state-capture project.
Credit to Ramaphosa for amending regulations that barred law-enforcement agencies from working with the Zondo commission, which has heard testimony from dozens of witnesses about how government officials conspired with the private sector to engage in widespread corruption.
Until July 2020, commission staff were bound to secrecy and prohibited from sharing information they obtained in the course of their work, even with law-enforcement agencies.
It’s unclear if the NPA contacted the commission's investigators to obtain information, records or documents related to the Free State asbestos project, but one would imagine it would have been prudent to do so, considering its limited resources and mounting frustration that Shamila Batohi, appointed head of the NPA late in 2018, has not yet conducted high-profile prosecutions.
Ramaphosa also gave us a reason to tip our hats on Wednesday when the telecoms regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA, finally outlined plans to auction R8bn worth of broadband spectrum-invisible radio frequencies on which wireless signals travel.
The release of the spectrum, which essentially means better-quality service with fewer dropped calls and faster download speeds, will free up much-needed airwaves and lower the cost of internet connectivity, which is among the most expensive in the world and has been blamed partly for SA’s sluggish economic growth over the last decade.
It’s been low-hanging fruit unpicked for too long in promised structural reforms. The cost of kicking the can down the road on issuing spectrum and other reforms has given Ramaphosa an unwelcome record of presiding over an economy that shrunk in seven out of 10 quarters since he took over in 2018.
Also encouraging was an announcement by agriculture, land reform & rural development minister Thoko Didiza that the government plans to lease 700,000ha of farmland to black farmers. This is a significant acceleration of its land-reform programme, something that should have happened years ago and would have helped avoid the harm caused by the debate on constitutional amendments to facilitate expropriation without compensation.
As we wait for the president to make a post-lockdown economic recovery plan public, it was good to see the Hawks swinging into action, Icasa stepping up to remove the long-standing economic impediment and Didiza advancing plans to reverse some of the deep inequalities plaguing SA.
Let’s hope this is just the start.
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