What has happened to honour and accountability?

Douglas Gibson says the state of local govt as revealed by the AG is truly abysmal

31 May 2018

I have told the story before about one of the most impressive public officials I ever encountered in a very long career: Dr Ayanda Ntsaluba, former Director-General of Health and then of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO). At the very first departmental meeting I attended after being appointed as an ambassador, Dr Ntsaluba addressed the hundred or so top officials of his department and pointing (in a friendly way) to the Chief Financial Officer, said that neither he nor anyone else in the financial section of the department would receive a bonus that year unless and only if a completely clean audit was given to DIRCO by the Auditor-General. That I call leadership.

Contrast that with the abysmal record in local government revealed in the latest Auditor-General Report. The Star’s headline on Thursday, May 24, 2018 read as follows:

Municipal Mess

Close to half of 257 in distress

Struggling to collect revenue

Can’t pay debt, deliver services”

We also read that only about 33 town councils are reasonably-off financially. I am prepared to take a bet with anyone who wants to lose some money to me that in almost every case, the officials of the failing local government authorities received performance bonuses, ostensibly for meeting their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). The question arises: how can one justify the payment of bonuses to officials who are not delivering – or able to deliver – clean audits and reasonable service to the residents of their towns?

I referred recently to the single example I know of, the almost unprecedented action of the executive directors of Johannesburg City Power, under the leadership of CEO Lerato Setshedi, who recommended to the board that bonuses be paid to all staff members, but not to themselves, because they were not yet satisfied with the performance of the company. That is honourable leadership.

What of all the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and the government and provincial government departments? Almost every one of those has without doubt paid performance bonuses. The bigger the failure, the bigger the bonus. When caught out, the immediate reaction of most officials is to use every trick in the book to avoid being held to account. Seldom, if ever does one of them do the honourable thing and resign.

What applies to public officials should also apply to politicians. They seem to think there are prizes, not just for doing the knitting, but they expect them for unpicking the knitting as well. They ought to carry the can for failure but rarely do so. Imagine the current scene: after a quarter of a century of ANC government with failure and decay all around, Minister Pravin Gordhan and President Ramaphosa are receiving applause for all the commissions of inquiry and investigations of corruption and maladministration in the government. They are determined to root out corruption and state capture and get to the truth of the Zuma years, where the watchword was “Innocent until proven guilty in a Court of Law.” (Just make sure they don’t ever get to court).

Commendably, Gordhan and Ramaphosa want to appoint competent people to almost every imaginable organ of state as well as to the SOEs. Congratulations, guys. Not before time.

Is it rude to point out that these same politicians were part of the slipstream of the Zuma juggernaut that first elected Jacob Zuma as ANC president and then, under the instigation of Julius Malema and a few like him, “recalled” President Mbeki? Mbeki had his faults – some large ones – but there have been few if any believable accusations of personal corruption on his part.

Is it in bad taste to refer to the fact that for years some of them, like Pravin Gordhan sat in the Zuma cabinet, putting up with all the failure and the theft and the rapid decline of our economy and our country? And Trevor Manuel? Now remorseful about putting up with all of this for so long. Yes, Trevor, please tell us why you did so. The truth is no doubt that it was quite nice being in the cabinet, knowing at least that you were doing the best job you could, while keeping your knowledge about the situation to yourself. And now you blame Parliament for not doing what you did not have the gumption to do: recognise the imperative of ridding the country of a corrupt president.

Is it impolite to point out that they helped ensure another four years of looting, corruption, nepotism and maladministration by campaigning in the 2014 election to give President Zuma another term of office? Is it conceivable that no-one in government knew that the state-owned airline SA Express would have to be banned from the skies because its aircraft, used to fly you and me, were not airworthy? The shame of it beggars belief. Let’s see if the people responsible for this mess – previous ministers, the board, the management, the staff of SA Express are going to be held responsible for the financial loss and the reputational loss to South Africa. Those who were paid bonuses must refund us, and those who were paid excessive board fees need to take the honourable course and pay us back. It is only if people – officials and politicians—are truly held accountable for their failures, their neglect, their outright plunder and crookery in some cases, that the public should be satisfied that justice is being done and seen to be done.

Every one of the popular actions being taken now is another confirmation of the failure of a government at almost every level because it has been in power for too long. No party should remain in power for a quarter of a century in a constitutional democracy. They start to think they are there by divine right, forgetting that they are there to serve the people of our country and not themselves.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand.

This article first appeared in The Star.