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Recovering South Africa’s “Stolen Billions” – A Good Start, But Still Just A Start

Tying The Tourniquet

“There is undeniable evidence that the majority of the people in this country are sick and tired of corruption, and demand that justice prevails.” These are the powerful words of Judge Gidfonia Mlindelwa Makhanya, president of the Special Investigating Unit’s (SIU) Special Tribunal. The Tribunal was established by President Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2019 to fast track the recovery of funds missing from the State’s coffers due to corruption or irregular spending.

The need for such a Tribunal stems from the bottle neck that occurs between the identification of, and investigation into, suspicious government contracts, and their eventual resolution.

“Fast-tracking these matters through the Special Tribunal will enable the SIU to recover monies and/or assets lost by state institutions through irregular and corrupt means,” says spokesperson Khusela Diko. “This ensures that those responsible for the loss of monies and or assets by state institutions are held accountable. The litigation process includes both public and private sectors, persons and entities.”

This is indeed encouraging news. The value of cases currently ready for adjudication sits at R14.7 billion! According to Advocate Andy Mothibi, head of the SIU, these cases relate primarily to irregularities concerning the awarding of contracts, and stem mainly from the health sector and state-owned entities.

If this money is indeed recovered, returned to state coffers, and used as it was originally intended, we could see real progress happening in many areas where it is so desperately needed.

As President Ramaphosa says: “We need to ensure that public money stolen is returned and used to deliver services and much needed basic infrastructure to the poorest communities.”

Justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola, too, is exceptionally positive about the impact the Special Tribunal will have.

“Our fight against corruption, fraud and illicit money flows has been given real impetus,” he said. “This tribunal is a swift mechanism to claw back every cent that was stolen from the fiscus. The era of impunity is behind us.”

Early Successes

Strong words – which are, if recently developments are anything to go by, being backed up with decisive action. In the last couple of days, for example, the Tribunal has issued summons to no fewer than 13 non-profit organisations implicated in “unjustified enrichment” relating to the Life Esidimeni scandal. The organisations concerned are accused of allegedly being overpaid because they submitted fraudulent invoices. If civil litigation is successful, the Tribunal expects to recover around R5.5 million.

There are other successes too:

The SIU recently recovered over R180 million stolen from state funds during the period 2008 and 2013 through dubious social grant payments to social pension and low cost housing beneficiaries, among others. It also, through its investigations into how these payments were made, prevented an estimated R16 billion in future losses.

The unit also recovered approximately R41.4m from irregular housing subsidies allocated to over five thousand government officials, as well as just under R4.5 million from correctional services department officials who defrauded the medical aid fund.

What About Longevity?

It’s all very encouraging, but there is still a very long way to go. Are these early successes simply a case of a new broom sweeping clean? Is this initial momentum destined to taper off as the sheer magnitude of the corruption becomes clear, and the true scope of the Special Tribunal’s mandate looms exhaustingly large?

President Ramaphosa boldly stated that there would be “no place for corrupt and immoral leaders” in his government. “We want a corps of skilled and professional public servants of the highest moral standards – and dedicated to the public good,” he said. “We will build on the work we have already begun to address problems of poor governance, inefficiency and financial sustainability. We are committed to building an ethical state in which there is no place for corruption, patronage, rent-seeking and plundering of public money.”

And yet, there is another side to this coin. In April this year, the National Energy Regulator (Nersa) granted Eskom, our technically insolvent energy producer at the very epicentre of accusations of corruption and maladministration, a 9.4% increase in tariffs for 2019/2020. Not surprisingly, the move was met with bitter criticism by many, notably the Democratic Alliance and OUTA (Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse), who slammed the increase saying it essentially forced the South African public to continue paying for corruption.

Which is exactly what the SIU’s Special Tribunal was formed to uncover, remedy and ultimately, one would hope, prevent.

What Can We Do?

While it behoves us to be positive, and gratefully acknowledge the progress the Tribunal has already made, we also have to remember it is only the first step in a very long journey. We, as the South African public, together with key organisations such as OUTA, Business Unity South Africa and the Helen Zille Freedom of Speech Foundation, must remain tirelessly vigilant to ensure that those guilty of benefiting from corrupt government expenditure are brought to book.

While applauding the successes of the SUI and its Special Tribunal, we also need to hold them accountable. Let’s talk to our local political party counsellors, and ask them to suggest in Parliament the need for transparent milestones laid out for the SIU so that we can see its progress, or lack of. We need to do everything in our power to ensure all appropriate channels are mobilised and the full extent of the law is actually leveraged.

As Wayne Duvenage says in this article in The Daily Maverick, “As civil society, we must not relent in applying pressure for the government to fix our broken state entities and to introduce the competence and visionary leadership that is able to take tough decisions.”