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If You Put A Fox In Charge Of The Henhouse, Expect To Lose A Few Chickens

Two years ago, we got very excited when Gauteng Premier David Makhura announced that, by the end of February last year, system would be in place whereby Gauteng government employees who issued tenders would undergo regular security vetting and lifestyle audits.

The Premier has, since his appointment in 2014, made himself unpopular on many occasions by firing heads of departments accused of corrupt activities. Yet the promise of these audits has done little to stem corruption in many municipalities in the province, and accusations of tender irregularities, “questionable decisions” and intimidation preventing people from reporting underhand practices are common.

Of course, Gauteng is not the only province dealing with allegations of corruption irregularities, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t get too excited at the announcement at the beginning of last month that lifestyle audits will once again be implemented on government officials accused of wrongdoing, in order to “fight malfeasance in the state apparatus.”

According to an article in IOL, these audits are aimed at understanding the “financial profile of a person, regarding legitimate declared income against known and observed assets,” and “will also include identifying whether a person’s expenditures exceed his or her income.”

Interestingly, the scope of the audits only extends to those government officials “accused of wrongdoing.”

Yet it only takes the most cursory of glances at the lifestyles of many civil servants to see that it’s obvious they’re living well beyond their official means. But because they haven’t yet been accused of any dodgy dealings, they escape the tentacles of the audit and so are free to carry on living the high life.

And let’s be honest, how likely is it that even those officials who are investigated will actually face any kind of music?

Putting a fox in charge of the henhouse is only ever going to result in chickens getting eaten. Yet our government remains surprised when this keeps happening. So, what do they do? Instead of putting someone less likely to be tempted by the sight of all those plump chickens in charge, they simply give the job to another fox.

It’s like thinking that changing the horse is going to make a difference to the outcome of a race when it’s ridden by the same jockey who’s been throwing previous races!

There’s only ever going to be one end result if the tree keeps voting for the axe simply because it has a wooden handle.

Sadly, people use to living a life seasoned to perfection by corruption are unlikely to ever accept having to eat plainer food. Which means the only way we’re ever going to get this particular house in order is to clean it out entirely and start again.

We need professional, qualified civil servants who are accountable to people with credibility, who are themselves then responsible to others with credibility. Right the way up the food chain to the very top.

The guards of the guards of the guards must all be held accountable.

In one of his recent weekly newsletters, President Ramaphosa said, “Twenty-seven years into democracy, it can be said of the public service that, while several pockets of excellence exist, we have serious challenges in many government departments with regards to skills, competence and professionalism. We need a fit-for-purpose public service with suitable skills, a professional ethic and a commitment to serving the people.”

But how to get one?

The President went on to say that, “We are proposing a number of far-reaching reforms, such as extending the tenure of Heads of Department based on merit and performance, doing occupation-based competency assessments and involving the Public Service Commission in the interviews of Directors-General and Deputy Directors-General.

“Introducing integrity tests for all shortlisted individuals will help so that we can recruit civil servants who can serve honestly. We also need to extend the compulsory entrance exams that we introduced in April 2020 beyond senior management. Successful developmental states have similar measures which help advance professionalism within the public service.”

“The public service does not belong to any one party, nor should it be the domain of any particular interest group. It should not be a law unto itself. The public service belongs to the people of South Africa. It must serve them, and them alone.”

Powerful and encouraging words. But it remains to be seen whether or not they will actually be translated into any kind of meaningful action. And whether that action will address the root cause of the problem or just be a temporary fix, aimed at the symptom and not the cause.

As Ayanda Kota writes in an article for Jacobinmag, “ To claim that corruption is the fault of individual leaders means that we will continue to pick the bad apples off the tree but not diagnose why the tree is producing bad apples.”