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Jul 03, 2012

Corruption Watch to cast critical eye over SA’s R850bn infrastructure plan

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Corruption Watch executive director David Lewis in conversation with Engineering News Editor Terence Creamer on the organisation's current priorities. Camera Work: Nicholas Boyd & Duane Daws. Editing: Darlene Creamer.
South Africa|Energy Programme|Online Portal|David Lewis
south-africa|energy-programme|online-portal|david-lewis
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Recently established civil society watchdog Corruption Watch is considering ways to cast an anticorruption spotlight on South Africa’s R850-billion infrastructure programme, which is being led primarily by State-owned companies.

Executive director David Lewis tells Engineering News Online the programme, which government aims to use to stimulate industrial development, create jobs and accelerate growth, needs to be designed in such a way that it does not become a “hot spot” for dishonest activities and unscrupulous opportunists.

It is acceptable, from a policy perspective, to pay a higher price for local content that could yield jobs, skills and introduce new technology. But Lewis says that price will only be worth paying in a context where there is sound governance and transparency of the costs and benefits. Otherwise, there is a risk that companies may establish themselves “simply to grease the wheels”, which would leave society picking up the tab, while further eroding the citizenry’s already fragile trust in the public sector.

“What I know about the ‘arms deal’ is that it wasn’t so much local content, but local intermediation between foreign suppliers and the defence force that became corrupted. In other words, deriving local rents from facilitating connectedness between the seller and the buyer.”

The scale of the programme is the primary reason for Corruption Watch’s emerging interest in infrastructure. The energy programme alone, Lewis muses, could make the arms deal “look like a rounding error”.

The organisation is, thus, considering replicating an approach taken by a Russian online portal, which tracks tenders and invites comments on ‘irregularities’, particularly from losing bidders. Such profiling could provide an early warning of compromises in tender processes.

The organisation is also eager to recruit a programme manager with intimate knowledge of public tender processes so that its interventions are based on a sound understanding of the risks inherent in such processes.

BUSINESS ENGAGEMENT

Besides infrastructure, Corruption Watch, which has it roots in the Congress of South African Trade Unions, is also planning to consolidate its “engagement” with the business community more generally.

Through this contract, it aims to highlight not only the threats associated with corrupted tender processes, but also to help aise awareness of the scourge, as well as debate about the potential remedies.

Lewis is particularly keen to tap into the internal communication channels of large business to extend the anticorruption message to both employees and customers. “We would like to put a more constructive spin on how corruption might be combatted.”

The problem currently, is that the risk/reward balance remains skewed in favour of the corrupt. Evidenced, Lewis argues, by the fact that those engaging in such activities are often unafraid to flaunt the fruits of their ill-gotten gains through the purchase of new cars, or other visible assets.

“It reminds me a little bit of the early days of the competition authorities,” the former Competition Tribunal chairperson adds. “Corrupt people feel so well protected . . . so certain that the risks of getting caught are really low, which leads them to leaving the most extraordinary evidence lying around.”

Therefore, even though the organisation has no statutory powers, such impunity has already created an opportunity for it to begin to expose corruption through basic desktop research and investigation.

In total, it has received over 2 000 complaints, ranging from corruption among traffic officers and Home Affairs officials, to nepotism in appointments in small towns, which is resulting in allegations of budget pillaging.

It will work with the enforcement agencies where it is able to secure evidence of corruption, but Lewis says a strong focus is mobilising opposition against the problem.

“There has to be robust prosecution and that has to be perceived as part of the risk . . . but you can’t solve this problem by serial acts of prosecution alone. There will always be more coming in the back door than you manage to get out the front door.”

Prosecutions should be complemented by “naming and shaming”, helping to design systems that disable corruption and the mobilisation of an “outraged citizenry”.

Edited by: Creamer Media Reporter
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