Mbhazima Shilowa | It really is now time to step up, Mr President

The country has been aware of corruption involving funding for a while, so why has the president been slow to act, writes Mbhazima Shilowa.

In the run-up to the national general elections in 2019, President boldly proclaimed that the era of impunity was over and that he would be tough on corruption regardless of who the perpetrators were.

ANC veterans and stalwarts, some media pundits and business people went all out to convince the electorate that Ramaphosa was the real deal. Anyone who pointed out that he was not new to government as he had been deputy president for the previous five years and a member of the ANC’s national executive committee since 1991 and therefore complicit in turning a blind eye, was said to be a party pooper and a Ramaphosa hater.

We were assured that Ramaphosa was about to find his voice and be his own man despite keeping quiet during what he now calls “nine wasted years”.

Alas, it has come to pass that the corruption that thrived during the Zuma presidency continues unabated.

Corruption tentacles

It is telling and shameful that it is now accepted that some of the corruption networks have their tentacles inside ANC structures. Surprisingly, everyone in the ANC is against corruption and want it rooted out. Everyone thinks the other is corrupt but uses their position to enrich themselves, their friends and their relatives.

It is no wonder that Ramaphosa’s announcement last week that he had signed a proclamation for the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to probe all related corruption allegations received a mixed reaction. Many felt it was akin to closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.

I would go as far as saying he was merely going through the motions, choosing the safe route by leaving it to law enforcement agencies.

If Ramaphosa was serious and meant business, he would have instructed departments, provinces and municipalities to suspend all suspected fraudulent contracts, politicians and officials involved and freeze funds already paid. Furthermore, he should have decreed that all tenders henceforth be handled by National Treasury, as was the case with earlier regulations.

It is a matter of public record that funds meant for the funerals of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Zola Skweyiya were looted and prices inflated. Why did the president think funds would be exempt?

This certainly does not appear to be the case.

On 21 April, during one of the “ family gatherings” he said: “We are deeply disturbed by reports of unscrupulous people abusing the distribution of food and other assistance for corrupt ends. We will not hesitate to ensure that those involved in such activities face the full might of the law.”

The question is what did he do? Nothing.

By the time he announced the socioeconomic measures there were already reports of ANC councillors hoarding food parcels and blankets. The same was said about water tanks meant to alleviate the plight of communities who are without water. The tanks were being sold from the homes of some of the councillors.

The president should have smelt a rat when national departments, provinces, municipalities and black businesses insisted on each sphere handling their own procurement, instead of the directive by National Treasury to source all necessary materials directly from the manufacturer. While there may have been a real concern that black business and emerging enterprises would miss out on some of the contracts, the aim seems to have been to fleece the public purse.

It has now come to light that the Gauteng Treasury had made such a call for centralised procurement in the province but was overruled. Yet we act surprised when tenders worth more than R2 billion are said to have found their way into the pockets of politically-connected individuals.

Passing along the hot potato

Even during his speech, Ramaphosa spoke in general terms instead of being specific. The allegations about tender fraud, misuse of resources and inflating of prices in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal have been public knowledge since May.

Like the president, the premiers passed the hot potato to the SIU instead of taking action themselves. Only KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala instituted a probe and made the findings public.

It seems we are not only facing the coronavirus pandemic but a corruption pandemic as well.

On Sunday, the country awoke to a series of tweets from Finance Minister Tito Mboweni. He tweeted, among other things, that:

A tender is an ethical contract. It is not a blank cheque to deceive and steal. And stealing from unwell people! During a COVID-19 pandemic! Please people. What kind of people are these criminals?… It was time that leadership led without fear, favour, or prejudice. Watch this space.

The question once more is what has Mboweni done? Nothing. Here is a man charged with looking after our finances, who through National Treasury is the custodian of regulations that are being flouted, but is moaning on Twitter instead of insisting on action such as suspensions, cancellation of contracts and freezing of accounts. 

It’s akin to playing to the gallery instead of facing his comrades, who are the ones involved in what AmaXhosa call “itakum, itekuwe, itephansi. Ayitula tuli, eyesigodi”. Loosely translated, it means it is my turn to take a sip, then yours, taking a break as the calabash is placed on the ground. It does not move outside of our circle, it is a family affair!

The challenge facing the president is to convince a continually sceptical public that he has the political will to nip it in the bud. He will unfortunately have to start inside his political party.

While the tentacles extend across all political parties, business and society, it has its roots inside the ruling party. As long as members of his party accused of looting sit alongside Ramaphosa in party structures and in Parliament, he will face the charge of speaking from both sides of his mouth.

The reinstatement of the two Limpopo office-bearers accused of involvement in bringing VBS bank to its knees did not help matters. How can Ramaphosa call on those involved in alleged fraud and corruption of funds to fall on their swords when his party has handed the two a free pass ostensibly because they have not been charged of any wrongdoing?

Ramaphosa should take heed of Matthew 6:24.

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

Party or country?

In this instance, it is the party or the country.

One accepts that Ramaphosa needs the support of the party, but in this instance he needs the support of the country more. After all, many voted for the ANC on the basis of the pledges he had personally made even as they were sceptical of his party.

Were the president to act decisively, he might find more support than he realised within the ANC. After all, some ANC members are the ones who have blown the lid on some shady deals either because they feel left out or because they are genuinely concerned about the impact on the party and the country.

The nation needs Ramaphosa to finally step up to his election promises.

– Mbhazima Shilowa is the former premier of Gauteng and former general secretary of Cosatu.

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