ANC-20 is a pandemic far worse than COVID-19

William Saunderson-Meyer does a deep dive into Treasury's list of PPE contracts


The statistics tell us that the COVID-19 pandemic will sicken 9,000 out of every million South Africans. The ANC-20 corruption pandemic is far worse. It will make sick, to our stomachs, every single one of us.

At least half of the R10.4bn that the government set aside for emergency COVID relief is under criminal investigation. When the process is completed, it is conceivable that more than two out of three rands set aside to care for the vulnerable, the sick and the dying, will be shown to have been misused — either stolen in non-delivered contracts or skimmed through inflated prices.

Succumbing to public pressure, the government has now released details of COVID-19 contracts. President Cyril Ramaphosa calls it a “watershed moment that marks a new era of transparency” in the procurement of state goods and service. The Western Cape released its COVID contract details weeks back, but then it has less to hide.

Ramaphosa's move is to be welcomed. Since government watchdogs and oversight procedures are unable to deal with such corruption, which is obvious from the documents released by the Treasury, public scrutiny is the only course to follow. 

I urge every reader to access the detailed tender awards for their province or most loathed national department, all of which are available online at ocpo.treasury.gov.za/COVID19/. Read, weep and wail. Read and gnash your teeth. But please read.

The information varies substantially in its scope and usefulness. For example, in the Eastern Cape, there are no details of what was bought, in what numbers, and using what units of measure were the costs arrived at, making the information useless. 

Such obfuscation is doubtless deliberate. The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) already has just under R2bn in COVID tenders under investigation in that province.

But to whet your appetite — and, of course, without any nasty imputations of greed or corruption — let’s take a random sampling of how some of the provincial governments spent their Treasury windfall. 

Mpumalanga Provincial Treasury paid Hlogiso Trading R168,800 for 25-litre containers of hand sanitiser, costing R4,220 each. For the same item, Classy look Makhotane Trading charged the Agriculture and Rural Development Department R1,624 per container. And in North West, the Office of the Premier paid DSTNCTV a mere R160 per container.

In Gauteng, where the SIU is investigating R2.2bn in dubious Health Department tenders alone, the only criterion for being contracted appears to be “100% black-owned”. Certainly, it was never pricing. 

The province’s Department of e-Government paid Finesse World Wide more than R328,000 to disinfect its document management centre, while Capotex Trading Enterprises were paid R517,000 for the vaguer task of “disinfection of environment”. In KwaZulu-Natal, surface disinfectant procured from Logan Medical — which earned R122m from the KZN government on various Covid contracts — cost R337.08 per square. 

In the Free State, plastic surgical gloves were procured at between R234 and R356 a pair. This kind of markup, of an item costing cents per unit wholesale, was pretty much par for the course elsewhere. 

The Office of the Free State Premier paid Bontle ba Motlatyla Trading R280,000 for “placement of a Covid advertisement”. In KZN, a single SABC radio advert “for a COVID-19 interview” cost R266,616. The second time around, the cost went up R328,716. 

Also in KZN, “a towable cart with 1,000 litres of capacity” — in other words, one cubic metre in size; basically a very small Ventertjie — cost R109,250 from MX Distributers. They got an order for 22, totalling R2.4m. According to their website, MX Distributors, operating from what appears to be a residential home in Hillcrest, Durban, is a lubricant and petrochemical distributor.

KZN’s infrared thermometers were acquired at between R1,437 and R2,645 each. A face shield cost R18 from Untried, R43 from Bidvest Waltons, and R6,200 from Bekezela Marketing. 

Velvet Rope Lifestyle provided “catering for the KZN homeless” at R115 a meal. The KZN Premier’s “command team” got their nosh at up to R275 a meal, mostly from Occassion (sic) Shiner Catering and Decor, although the aptly named Jailbreak Caterers also a got some of the leftovers business. 

Total on feeding best those who need it least? Almost R300,000 of the premier’s R1.9m expenditure. 

The biggest item of expenditure in the KZN premier’s office was a bizarre R475,000 paid to Euphoric Technologies for “decanting, rebottling and delivery” of 25,000ml of sanitiser at R19/ml. Sounds a good deal until it dawns that KZN paid almost half a million rand to rebottle 25l — which is what 25,000ml is — of ethanol-laced soap water. 

At those labour rates, just to pour a 750m’ bottle of Cape red wine into a crystal decanter for the KZN premier would cost the taxpayer R14,250. The cost of the wine, of course, would depend on which favoured vendor got the tender.

Interestingly, in KZN more than 57% of the province’s R2bn in emergency funds was spent on infrastructural projects, which is not what it was intended for. But construction, historically and everywhere in the world, has always been a good way for camouflaging large amounts of money. 

Again, while there is no imputation of wrongdoing, let’s just consider the scale of that infrastructural spend. The province spent R81m “to refurbish a ward” at Clairwood Hospital, as well as another R232m on “other ward alterations and additions” at that hospital.

At the Richmond Chest Hospital, the refurbishment of three wards into isolation units cost R80m. They then converted another three, at a cost of R61m.

One can carry on like this, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. But what is obvious from just a cursory examination, is:

That contrary to the argument that black empowerment regulations are necessary as a counterweight to white monopoly capital, that is not what is happening. Few of the tender beneficiaries are recognisable commercial entities, complete with premises, staff and equipment. Many, if not most, appear simply to be intermediaries: snagging the deal, adding a substantial mark-up, and then acquiring the goods and services from “real” businesses.

That COVID procurement has been a feeding frenzy of unparalleled proportions and no track record is required. Hence one has an office furniture company providing disinfectants and what seems to be a sports shop supplying thermometers. 

That the national Treasury’s controls over the emergency fund disbursements are poor. There is no uniformity in what information is provided and how it is presented, which makes accountability difficult. 

None of this is new. Everywhere where the government is spending money, large amounts are being stolen. This process predates the looting that took place during the Zuma years, estimated at R1 trillion, and continues to this day.

It also affects every sector. The official inquiry into the Life Esidimeni tragedy briefly threw a light, quickly extinguished, on dozens of fly-by-night “empowerment” NGOs, set up to warehouse psychiatric patients previously treated in corporate facilities. And the recent forced disclosure of National Lottery records shows hundreds of millions going to scores of dubious organisations.

But what is important about this release of COVID relief information — aside from President Cyril Ramaphosa expressing shock and promising that the African National Congress will do better in future — is that it allows the public gaze a rare chance to penetrate the murkiness that normally surrounds the hundreds of billions of rands flowing through the state’s procurement processes. This brief sliver of transparency— the shroud of secrecy has been lifted only in response to public outrage; when the outrage wanes, the openness will disappear — shows how the goal of what is laughably termed “broad-based black economic empowerment” has been perverted to benefit a small, politically connected elite.

Already it is clear how the ANC will seek to deflect this anger. KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala writes in a media statement that accompanied his province’s disclosure: “We continue to observe that in the public space there are sustained efforts to portray the government as corrupt and irresponsible. This is part of a long drawn and bigger plan to characterise the government as wasteful. We are fully aware of these efforts because they are a scarecrow to divert our society from the fundamental questions of radical economic transformation.”

Much of the public anger at the moment appears to be because the corruption has involved emergency medical relief for a pandemic. That’s an understandable gut response: only the lowest of the low steal from the sick and the dying. But the truth is that every rand that was, is and will be skimmed in every national, provincial, municipal or state institution, is money stolen from the vulnerable people that these entities exist to serve: the sick, the unemployed, the indigent.

It’s been going on for years. It's not going to stop now — corruption is the only sector of the South African economy that is booming. The speed and bravura with which the pandemic funds disappeared show that although the public service is largely incompetent at administering to its duties, its criminal skills are international benchmarks.

COVID-19 will kill less than two per cent of the South Africans it infects. ANC-20 may still kill the entire nation. 

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