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By Nicki Van ‘t Riet
First published on TimesLive

Dear Mr President

Discouragement and despondency levels amongst South Africans are at an apex. Trust between residents and their leaders is dead. The last nail in the coffin of the social compact between the State and its people has been driven in.

Yet this week, we received further dim news – that South Africa had slipped a point in Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which measures the perception of public sector corruption globally. With very little upward movement over the past decade, the country finds itself back where it started in 2012 – the same position we held while a state capture henchman was in top office. While the CPI measures perceptions of corruption which may differ from the certain realities, perceptions, Mr President, matter.

In 2022, Corruption Watch tracked and applauded any meaningful anti-corruption impetus. The establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council, for example, seems set to play a pivotal role in implementing the National Anti-Corruption Strategy. Certain key asset recovery initiatives were prioritised. More funds were allocated to the justice department to improve capacity in the prosecution service. Certain cases were enrolled, investigations declared, and some accused appeared in court for alleged state capture-related offences.

While there has been some actual positive movement, the CPI results suggest that it is not enough – that the positives are being cancelled out by the innumerable negatives which remain undealt with.

And the sense is that South Africans, having heard it all before, now want fast, uncompromising, aggressive, concrete anti-corruption action.

Because it only takes a perception that you are not winning the war on corruption for public trust to be further eroded, for our democracy to be further weakened, for economic development to be further crippled, and for social division, inequality, and poverty to be amplified.

Regarding perceptions, corruption watchers perceived that your SONA2022 address failed to address corruption – arguably the biggest issue facing South Africa at that moment – as the Mission Critical it ought to have been. There was a fleeting “we are standing together against corruption” at the beginning and thereafter we had to wait until at least 70% of your address was complete before hearing that it was your government’s intention to address corruption and state capture as a key policy objective and deliverable.

In fact, for a few moments there, it all but seemed to have been forgotten until near end. The placement of corruption in the SONA should not give the impression that it is a footnote.

When you did eventually expand on anti-corruption efforts towards the end, corruption watchers who were holding their breath finally exhaled when you said that the State would “strengthen the system to protect whistle-blowers”. It is these individuals, you said, who are “vital in safeguarding [sic] the fight against corruption and who take huge personal risk in reporting wrongdoing”. Rounding off the speech, you asked every South African to “rally together in our fight against corruption… in our fight to achieve a more just and equal society [sic]”.

Yet one year has passed and blowing the whistle remains one of the most dangerous undertakings a South African can do, coming with a very high – if not the ultimate – price. So, we ask, Mr President, how many more whistle-blowers must die and how many must have their lives left in tatters before the State takes action?

At SONA2023, we expect firm policy undertakings and hard objectives being set on how the predicament of whistle-blowers will be proactively addressed. We expect to hear about how they are going to be physically protected, how their employment going to be secured, how they are going to receive psycho-social support, how they are going be financially rewarded as incentivisation, and how they are going to be legally protected. We need to hear that there is a hard deadline for the required legislative reform.

As you spend the next few days planning your SONA2023, please bear in mind that we want to hear – front and centre, and in the most emphatic terms – that corruption, state capture, and maladministration is receiving the critical ICU treatment they so urgently require.

We want to hear that investigations are being rounded up, arrests are being made, and cases enrolled in respect of the high-profile individuals and entities that have been Zondo-implicated.

We want to hear about what lies behind the delays and what the next steps will be on the extradition processes of the Gupta brothers so they can be held accountable.

We want to hear about the progress on the creation of special court rolls for state capture and corruption cases, which you raised in SONA2022 and which have not, to date, materialised.

As you address us at SONA2023 it is imperative that we hear that funds being paid into the criminal assets recovery account this year will be strongly safeguarded; that they will, in fact, be used for restitution and rebuilding what has been broken down; and that CARA will not simply become another pot of money to be pilfered by corrupt opportunists.

We want to hear undertakings about the implementation of a standardised, professionalised public procurement system centred around a fully functioning e-procurement platform.

We want to hear that civil society’s public comments in respect of the Public Procurement Bill are in fact being taken seriously in deciding on the final draft of the Bill which will be brought into law this year. For it was the porous, obsolete, and fragmented public procurement system which allowed state capture, cronyism, and looting to fester.

And because South Africa’s public service and institutions lie in shambles, and to avoid their further breakdown, we want undertakings from you at SONA2023 that policy commitments and hard deliverables are in place to drive towards transparent, merit-based, and public participatory appointment proceedings, ensuring the appointment of skilled, ethical, and independent individuals to key public institutions. We, as corruption watchers, will continue to focus on such appointments and scrutinise their processes. 

We want to hear from you at SONA2023 that you and your government put country before party.

And that you and your government divorce yourselves from party rhetoric that the Political Party Funding Act be amended to allow parties access to the public purse for internal purposes. We are fully aware of efforts by your party and others to weaken the Act through proposals – which we see as threats to democracy – to increase the threshold for disclosure, thereby diminishing the requirement for accountability. Please know, Mr President, civil society is watching this and is ready for action.

If you want perception to improve, it is time to emphatically undertake that every nook and cranny of your government – every municipality, provincial department, ministry, state-owned enterprise, and Chapter 9 institution – will be swept clean if so needed.

This is your last year in Parliament before the 2024 election. Mr President, show us what you are made of, and help resurrect the dead trust in you and your government.

Nicki Van ‘t Riet is the head of Legal & Investigations at Corruption Watch.