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The Counter-Corruption Summit, happening today in Stellenbosch, brings together academia, government, civil society, international organisations, and business to continue to galvanise momentum, confirm broad-based support for those leading counter-corruption efforts, and create a shared platform for eradicating endemic corruption in our society.

This type of gathering, like the beneficial ownership transparency conference held in Cape Town in May, is crucial for ventilating all the issues so that applicable competencies among stakeholders can be identified and put to use. It is also important getting all stakeholders moving forward in a concerted direction, because addressing corruption cannot be the task of government alone but will require the coordinated efforts of all sectors of society.

Distinguished participants include Prof Geo Quinot of Stellenbosch University (SU), former Constitutional Court justice Edwin Cameron, justice minister Ronald Lamola, Corruption Watch executive director Karam Singh, Constitutional Court justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga, Scopa chairperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa, former public protector and current SU professor Thuli Madonsela, Investigating Directorate head Andrea Johnson, Anele Dudu Ncube of the African Development Bank, and more.

Keynote speaker Madonsela started off in typically dry fashion, saying: “When my colleague Prof Quinot indicated that they were planning to have this summit and that as a group we should endorse it, I wondered what would be the point of talking about corruption again.”

She explained, later in her speech, that there is value in bringing various players together to devise strategies as a unified group. “This opportunity to talk about it, and work on it collectively, is one we should embrace and keep holding each other from now going forward, because it’s going to get worse with state capture.”

In terms of moving forward, Madonsela said, the state capture commission is a crucial opportunity to visit accountability on the corrupt, as is the current global push against corruption, including the International Anti-Corruption Conference. Neither of these initiatives nor any others will work, however, if systemic corruption is not addressed.

The collaborative approach is non-negotiable, because ultimately everyone is affected by corruption. “If we were all in a boat, and it was leaking on the side of government, and it was going down, would it be smart or foolish to say I’ll do nothing, because firstly it’s government’s fault that there’s a hole on their side and two, it’s sinking on their side? You’ll agree with me that it would be foolish – because their side would go down faster, but down we will all go.”

For the same reason, she added, it’s everyone’s duty to combat corruption and furthermore, nobody should be exempt from scrutiny.

“If we’re going to fight corruption,” Madonsela concluded, “there should be no holy cows.”

Public money is not personal money

Madlanga, also a keynote speaker, devoted his address largely to public procurement and the need to be cautious with public money.

“The norm-setting constitutional provision on the procurement of goods and services by organs of state is section 217 of the Constitution. This section provides that when an organ of state contracts for goods or services, it must do so in accordance with a system which is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost effective.”

These constitutional prescripts are meant to improve the lives of ordinary people, at the same time restoring and maintaining their human dignity. “These factors are meant to ensure that the public reaps the best possible benefits from procurement by organs of state. The public are the true beneficiaries of state procurement.”

Or at least, they are meant to be the true beneficiaries, but corruption denies them that status. When procurement becomes tainted with corruption – and public procurement is highly vulnerable to corruption – the ones who truly benefit are the service providers and government officials who collude behind the scenes to extract the maximum profit for themselves.

Madlanga indulged in a bit of nostalgia, talking about his childhood in Mount Frere, where people from the community operated government-owned graders to maintain the gravel roads in the area.

“We no longer have those graders … Today for the smallest road maintenance works, we go out to tender, generally at huge cost … Experts in the field might say that it is cheaper or administratively prudent for government to do it this way. As a layperson, I cannot but wonder if government could not by now have bought its own graders and other road maintenance equipment, many times over. Likewise, I would wonder what the prudence is. And I’m not saying there isn’t. But I would wonder nonetheless.”

In other words, Madlanga continued, government must not procure goods or services from the private sector where it is not necessary to do so. This creates an environment conducive to corruption. “I accept that government procurement cannot be eliminated, but to the extent possible, it needs to be contained.”

Something drastic is needed to effectively strike back at corruption, he said – something outside of the ordinary, and it has to start at the top of the food chain. “If we have tough, concrete, systematic, consistent action emanating from the top and hitting at the top, its effects are sure to filter to the rest of our public service.”

“If we truly want to root out corruption, it cannot be business as usual,” said Madlanga. “That time has passed.”

Supply the necessary resources

Fellow keynote speaker Mkhuleko Hlengwa, chairperson of Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts, had some strong words about the institution he works in, and ideas about how to bring in improvement. For a start, he said, proper executive oversight is constrained because the skills and resources are lacking.

“It boils down to empowering the parliamentary machinery to do its work,” he said, talking about the ongoing problem of resourcing. “Parliament is underfunded and understaffed and under-resourced and unable to match the human resource set which the executive brings to Parliament when it has to appear.”

In being unable to properly hold the executive to account, he added, Parliament is not fulfilling its mandate and therefore is failing the people of South Africa. “If I were to go to the SOEs we would be here for the whole day but one of the major perennial headaches of this country is the lack of accountability of those deployed to oversee Eskom.”

Decisions that have to be taken are not being taken because efficiency is inimical to the growth of corruption. “It is in controversy and in decisiveness that corruption thrives, because that confusion creates a conducive environment for you not to see what is going on.”

If people carried out the tasks that are assigned to them, and consciously and deliberately put people ahead of personal ambition and desire for profit, errors and irregularities will not be buried to the extent that they are.

“Putting the country first which should be the yardstick measure of whether you are doing your job or not, because if you do so you will adhere to the rules and the laws that are there.”

He also opined that Parliament should open up more of its processes to the public. “For me the yardstick measure of a functional parliament is transparency. Anything we do behind closed doors, take it with a pinch of salt.”

Like Madlanga, Hlengwa was also highly critical of the way government conducts procurement, saying that it encourages corruption.

“I do not consider tendering in the current form in which it exists in South Africa to be business. It is merely a facilitation of money exchange, often times with inflated costs and no establishment of skills transfer, business growth and/or job creation. And therefore, it does very little to push back on the triple challenges that’s currently the norm now in South Africa, of poverty, unemployment and inequality.”

Government’s tendency to think of business and economic empowerment as mainly the transfer of money, will take us in the wrong direction, he said. “Unless there is a deliberate effort to reconfigure the tendering space and its purpose, the cancer of corruption will continue to prevail as a daily lived reality for the majority of our people and to the detriment of the economy.”