Civil society organisations urge leaders to tackle corruption

1st September 2020 By: Donna Slater - Creamer Media Contributing Editor and Photographer

In an open letter addressed to President Cyril Ramaphosa and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, Corruption Watch executive director David Lewis and Public Affairs Research Institute (Pari) executive director Dr Mbongiseni Buthelezi urge the leaders to tackle corruption by taking advantage of the current opportunities and show decisive leadership to steer a collaborative process as the draft Public Procurement Bill moves through Parliament.

Lewis and Buthelezi state that the majority of the corruption that has been exposed during the pandemic has been through procurement processes.

They say leaders have echoed South Africans’ anger at the widespread corruption that has occurred under the Covid-19 state of disaster and point to Ramaphosa’s letter from August 3, in which he noted that “[a]ttempting to profit from a disaster that is claiming the lives of our people every day is the action of scavengers”.

At the same time, Lewis and Buthelezi note that Mboweni also spoke about the “thieves waiting at the door” after he announced the Covid-19 adjustment budget.

However, despite Ramaphosa’s characterisation of these stories of corruption as having reminded South Africans of the State capture era, both Lewis and Buthelezi say the country cannot share in the President’s disbelief at the pandemic-related corruption.

“In fact, we, like many other South Africans, approached any announcement of the diversion of funds to fight the virus with scepticism, sure that the funds would also be used to line many pockets,” they state.

Rather than the current corruption bringing back bad memories of State capture, Lewis and Buthelezi says South Africa’s experience of State capture has taught many in the country to expect that some public officials are unprincipled enough to exploit their access to public funds for personal gain.

The pair say the pandemic-related corruption is a perfect example of the instability and turmoil that ill-judged and corrupt procurement practices unleash on society – incurring losses and wasteful expenditure that South African society simply cannot afford.

However, Lewis and Buthelezi say there is another golden opportunity to introduce change – the draft Public Procurement Bill.

Because Lewis and Buthelezi’s organisational work involves analysing the public procurement sphere, they say it is clear to them that there are significant weaknesses in the existing system which enable, and even facilitate, widespread procurement corruption.

“The draft Bill offers us all an opportunity to create a new procurement system which will enable for effective, efficient and transparent procurement of goods and services while insulating the system from corruption.”

They state that this draft legislation represents one of the most significant levers, “if not the most significant”, that can be used to reform this sphere.

However, Lewis and Buthelezi also express their concerns. “Despite the importance of public procurement to the fortunes of our collective society and despite the centrality of Parliamentary legislation to this crucial State practice, we do not sense from government the necessary degree of commitment, urgency and focus of the public mind which is immediately required on this pivotal issue.”

To achieve a piece of legislation that will reduce the risk of corruption and ensure competitiveness and fair and effective procedures within a transformative system, Lewis and Buthelezi say there needs to be a clear demonstration of strong political will and direction from Ramaphosa and Mboweni, as well as a willingness to collaborate with all stakeholders, including civil society, in the drafting process.

“While we welcome the appearance of this draft legislation and understand the 30-day extension of the period for comments decided upon by the National Treasury, we believe this important process of policy formulation and legislative drafting in the national interest is happening with neither the necessary focus nor with the appropriate speed.”

Both Corruption Watch and Pari made submissions on the draft Bill in June. In those submissions the organisations indicated their unease with various elements of the Bill as it stands.

“We made a broad range of concrete proposals to, among other things, streamline procurement operations, constrain improper political interference in the procurement system, improve transparency and accountability and incentivise and support whistle-blowers,” state Lewis and Buthelezi.

As civil society organisations, Corruption Watch and Pari remain committed to working with the National Treasury to strengthen the Bill and build a procurement system that serves as a vehicle to address the most basic needs of society, they note.