Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: MOELETSI MABE
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: MOELETSI MABE

If you were to put public trust in government on a scale of one to 10, SA would probably pull a solid “hell, no” right now. That much is clear from the cynicism that greeted news of a $4.3bn Covid relief grant from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

No sooner had the announcement been made on Monday night, than the social media meme machine kicked into gear: pics of “tenderpreneurs” in a dash for those dollars; of venal functionaries rubbing their hands in anticipation; of comrades staying up through the night to divide the spoils.

You can’t blame SA taxpayers for their loss of faith. After all, they’ve been stumping up tens of billions year after year for irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure by the government – not to mention the vast sums frittered away through sheer ineptitude.

The numbers being bandied about are making it feel like Monopoly money. The IMF loan – equivalent to about R70bn (or two arms deals in rand terms) – is a few bob more than the R57bn in taxpayer bailouts SAA has received since 1994. Throw in the R26.7bn we’ll probably have to cough up for the “new SAA” and we’ll call it square.

Of course, that IMF loan could be swallowed multiple times by the black hole of Eskom, with its R450bn debt burden. And that itself is somewhere around the R500bn that Cyril Ramaphosa says was lost to corruption during the decade of decadence under Jacob Zuma.

The problem is the accountability vacuum.

If memory serves, only two players in the arms deal ever served time. Schabir Shaik, who began a 15-year jail term in late 2006, is apparently living his best life on a diet of goji berries and golf, having been paroled on medical grounds in March 2009. And former ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni served four months of a four-year sentence for accepting a discount on a luxury vehicle. (Given the scale of subsequent looting, you can imagine he feels a bit acid about it all.)

As for other large-scale sacking of the state, there’s been little other than impunity.

There goes the Ramaphoria (again)

The fact that the announcement of the IMF loan – money to fund SA’s Covid response – followed so closely on the heels of reports of Covid-related corruption further explains the cynicism. In his address last week, Ramaphosa said 36 cases of corruption related to food parcels, grants, personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical procurement, and the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) are under investigation.

Among these, presumably, are the R30m which the KwaZulu-Natal social development department spent irregularly on blankets for the homeless and PPE, and a R4.8m government contract for raising Covid awareness in the Eastern Cape. One can only hope Eastern Cape health MEC Sindiswa Gomba’s shambolic R10m scooter-ambulance scheme is on the list too.

In Gauteng, 102 companies are being probed for fraud relating to the province’s R2.2bn PPE spend, Special Investigating Unit (SIU) head Andy Mothibi told Eyewitness News on Thursday. Prominent among these, as the Sunday Independent first reported, is an alleged R125m contract awarded to the company of amaBhaca chief Madzikane II Thandisizwe Diko, the husband of presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko. The couple is close to Gauteng health MEC Bandile Masuku.

It makes a joke of the “new dawn” that Ramaphosa so boldly declared when he stepped into the presidential office. For all the rhetoric, corruption remains systemic; endemic. And promises of investigations – or the creation of multi-agency task teams, or commissions of inquiry even – remain empty in the absence of prosecution.

The public is, quite simply, tired of waiting for accountability.

We’re not alone

It’s small consolation to know that we aren’t the only ones saddled with a parasitic state. Swathes of Latin America seem to be in much the same boat: as rocketing Covid infections threaten to overwhelm fragile health-care systems, cronyism and corruption are leeching Covid resources, as this Financial Times round-up explains.

And this Brookings Institution post on corruption and cronyism in the US is worth reading for this paragraph alone: “There have been reports that 27 clients of [Donald] Trump-connected lobbyists have received up to $10.5bn of coronavirus relief funds; that beneficiaries have also included multiple entities linked to the family of Jared Kushner and other Trump cronies and political allies; and that up to $273m was awarded to more than 100 companies that are owned or operated by major donors to Trump’s election efforts. In addition, unnecessary blanket ethics waivers have been applied to potential administration conflicts of interest and many other transactions meriting further investigation have occurred.”

One of the more absurd cases of procurement-gone-wrong in the US must be this one, covered by public interest investigative outfit ProPublica. To boost test tube supplies, federal authorities paid $7.3m to a Texas company “just six days after the company was formed by an ex-telemarketer repeatedly accused of fraudulent practices”. Only, when the test tubes arrived, they were plastic “preforms” – the plastic tubes that are turned into soda bottles. They don’t fit laboratory test tube racks; they’re not sterile; and the plastic could contain contaminants that affect lab results.

Before we despair totally, Tim Hanstad, writing for the World Economic Forum, offers some thoughts on combating corruption.

The answers include increased accountability, not just through vocal civil society actors and NGOs, but also institutions like the IMF including anticorruption fail-safes in their Covid funding; businesses themselves committing to greater transparency in their dealings with government; and “catalytic philanthropy” – where philanthropic outfits boost good governance through funding initiatives.

Without some kind of action, Hanstad writes, Covid-related corruption will “prolong the crisis by undermining government efficiency, significantly increasing the loss of life, wasting untold resources, and reducing society’s already fragile trust in government”.

Sadly for SA, that ship has already sailed.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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