Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
Kimi Makwetu. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Kimi Makwetu. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Wednesday was a big day for SA. For starters, auditor-general Kimi Makwetu released the results of his real-time audit of the government’s multibillion-rand Covid relief spending. It was an indictment of SA’s ability to manage money.

Makwetu has been warning for years about the paucity of financial controls in various branches of the government. Throw Covid in the mix, and you’ve got the makings of a perfect storm for fraud.

It was a relatively broad-ranging investigation, given the time constraints, and the AG’s findings are well laid out here by the Mail & Guardian’s Lester Kiewit. It’s also heartening that there’s already been some action, with labour minister Thulas Nxesi suspending four top Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) officials, including commissioner Teboho “What Payment Delays?” Maruping, pending further investigation.

For a round-up of the UIF findings alone, this article, by Daily Maverick’s Greg Nicholson, is worth a read. In short, there were: “overpayments and underpayments worth hundreds of millions of rand and [payments to] minors, the deceased and prisoners”.

Of course, this may have all slipped by unnoticed, given the evident orgy of electricity use around the country — at least if Eskom is to be believed. In a short time the national ball-and-chain had bounced SA from stage 2 to stage 4 of load-shedding due to “exceptionally high demand” from the moribund economy.

Some of those thoughtlessly sapping power from the national grid were, of course, members of parliament’s standing committee on appropriation, ironically trying to get online for the briefing by Eskom’s high command. “A lot of members are struggling to connect because of load-shedding. It is affecting oversight,” committee chair Sfiso Buthelezi bemoaned the situation.

It’s all covered by Marianne Merten here. TL;DR: Eskom’s debt has been supersized to R488bn (equivalent to the GDP of a small African country – Uganda, in fact), load-shedding will continue for 18 months and the groaning utility is grubbing for a 25% tariff increase.

Elsewhere in the hallowed house, oversight was continuing apace. Importantly, the National Assembly was apprising the country of the difference between a “donkey” and a “tonkey”.

See, back in July EFF MP Khanya Ceza called acting house chair Richard Dyantyi a “donkey”. When taken to task for his unparliamentary language, Ceza clarified that he’d actually said “tonkey” –  “‘a high-praiseworthy one’, derived from Roman”, he explained.

Luckily for the nation at large, Dyantyi has not let the issue rest. He’s revisited the Hansard record, to confirm that Ceza had indeed called him an ass. He’s also looked up all possible meanings of the word “tonkey” and established that no available definition suggests he’s praiseworthy – quite the opposite. As Jan Gerber drolly points out on News24, the Urban Dictionary defines “tonkey” as Scouser slang for “condom”.

Honourable members, indeed.

(It’s perhaps worth pointing out at this stage, given the profligate spending highlighted during the week, that the average parliamentary backbencher earns R1.14m a year, excluding perks, according to Africa Check. That’s more than four times the average formal wage in SA, estimated at about R270,000 a year by Business Tech. So you wouldn’t be out of line to expect a slightly more dignified, elevated level of debate in parliament.)

Anyhow, that’s how the question session with ministers of the social cluster was interrupted so Dyantyi could censure Ceza and refer him to the speaker for deliberately misleading parliament.

Sadly, parliamentary oversight proved slightly less exacting on the issue of a reported donation of millions of rand in medicines, medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) and food to Cuba, with health minister Zweli Mkhize really just side-stepping a question from the DA’s Siviwe Gwarube.

It’s an important issue, picked up by City Press’s Juniour Khumalo last month (the paywalled article is available here, with a follow-up here) – and one that both government and the ruling party would appear to have stonewalled him on.

On July 3, the Cuban embassy in SA, on its Facebook page, posted thanks to the SA government for the donation of supplies. The post featured pictures of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) handling boxes, and included thanks to ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and Gen MJ Tyhalisi for handing over the donation.

Consider that in March already Mkhize had admitted concerns around PPE shortages for frontline health-care workers. In April, Business for SA estimated the country had just four weeks of PPE left. By late June, President Cyril Ramaphosa noted the government was attending to PPE shortages.

Just over a month later, on August 4, Mkhize appointed a team to investigate why health-care workers were contracting Covid-19, which included probing allegations of PPE shortages. The team was given 14 days to report back (no sign of that report yet).

By August 13, more than 27,000 health-care workers in SA had contracted Covid – about 80% of them in the public sector.

So it’s fair to ask why it is that SA was donating PPE to another country when our own frontline workers – a team that’s already thin on the ground, and so more vulnerable – was not yet sufficiently covered.

Only, we still don’t know. ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe told City Press it would be “amiss” if a government donation was handed over by the party secretary-general – a clear blurring of state-party lines. But he couldn’t confirm where the donation came from. Other government departments, it would seem, simply gave Khumalo the runaround, while an off-the-record source in the department of international relations & co-operation absolved Dirco of the deed.

When asked about the donation on Wednesday, Mkhize vaguely referred to the spirit of ubuntu, and said private SA organisations often make donations “and look for a prominent leader ... to send donations over. That does not on its own mean there is a blurring of party and state.” In the same breath, however, he admitted having no knowledge of the specific source of the donation.

And that was pretty much that – with no explanation given for why, if Magashule was indeed handing over a private donation, a state institution such as the SANDF would be on hand to help.

You could understand Mkhize’s reticence to step into a minefield that may not be of his making. But we shouldn’t just let this go. It’s time our MPs were less concerned about unparliamentary language and more taken with an unseemly – and more unparliamentary – preoccupation with obfuscation. It’s only an obstinate insistence on the truth that will allow us to hold the executive to account.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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