EDITORIAL: The great reckoning arrives — at last
Moves on the NPA, Trillian and McKinsey may be just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a watershed in accountability that has boosted business confidence
Feel it, it is here. In boardrooms across SA this week, there was a tangible sense that something fundamental had shifted in the country’s body politic — and for once, it was in the right direction.
The elevation in mood wasn’t simply because of the election of Cyril Ramaphosa in the ANC’s eye-wateringly close leadership race in December; many weren’t sure the billionaire former Bidvest chairman would be able to make any difference, hamstrung as he is by the duelling ideologies and personalities that now constitute the ruling party’s national executive committee.
Then, the sands shifted. Over the weekend, we learnt that Shaun Abrahams — the ostensible head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) who is often derided as "Shaun the Sheep", but is actually far more amoeba-like when it comes to personal initiative — was targeted for removal by Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa has received a legal opinion that he can oust Abrahams immediately, the Sunday Times reported, and he plans to make good on that. This, after the NPA head apparently refused to proceed on 10 cases of state capture brought to him by the team of prosecutors working on the case.
News soon followed that the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU), which is technically an arm of the NPA, had applied for "preservation orders" freezing assets worth R1.6bn against both Trillian Capital Partners and McKinsey for money paid to them by Eskom.
Trillian, part-owned by Salim Essa, a confidant of the Gupta family, scored more than R500m from the power utility, while McKinsey walked away with R1bn. This despite advocate Geoff Budlender’s finding last year that there was a "sham arrangement" between the two consultancies, which led to them getting millions in taxpayer funds for services of dubious value.
True, the freezing order wasn’t granted against the Gupta family who, in any reasonably accountable democracy, would have had their assets seized shortly after former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas detailed how they offered him a R600m bribe. Still, it represents progress.
The Guptas, it now seems, will face their own moment in court. AFU acting head Knorx Molelle has confirmed his unit is working on 17 "state capture" cases involving R50bn in assets.
Corruption Watch’s David Lewis describes it as "the tip of an iceberg", rattling off a number of institutions whose executives should also face consequences. Think of the SABC’s Hlaudi Motsoeneng or Eskom’s Anoj Singh.
Still, this minor watershed in accountability is, anecdotally, acting as a spur for business confidence. This new energy is as evident in restaurants in Sandton, near the JSE, as it is in deal-making hot-spots like the Melrose Arch hotel.
It’s no surprise that the rand soon firmed to R12.19, reflecting a greater hope that the Ramaphosa era will herald the sort of fundamental governance overhaul that many doubted he had the clout to implement. Two months ago, the rand was at R13.77 to the dollar.
Of course, it is possible the AFU could have swooped a few weeks ago, before Ramaphosa’s victory. But it seems unlikely. After all, it was a different time, with a very different culture.
What we’re seeing are the green shoots of accountability — the one enemy of every crooked politician. Bob Woodward, the former Washington Post journalist who was part of the duo that broke the Watergate story, said accountability was the one thing that former US president Richard Nixon feared most.
In the end, Nixon couldn’t escape it. Neither, it turns out, can Zuma or his cronies.