A “staggering” caseload, budget constraints, repeat offender government departments, and a worry from the auditor-general that the Office of the Public Protector (PP) may collapse under financial strain.
These were just some of public protector advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s problems in her presentation of her annual report for 2017/18 yesterday to the portfolio committee on justice and correctional services.
Contained in the report were grim statements by the Auditor-General (AG), including “a material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt on the constitutional institution’s ability to continue as a going concern”. However, he noted it was unlikely because of its status as a constitutional body.
“In preparing the financial statements, the accounting officer is responsible for assessing the Public Protector South Africa’s ability to continue as a going concern, disclosing, as applicable, matters relating to going concern and using the going concern basis of accounting unless the accounting officer either intends to liquidate the constitutional institutional or to cease operations, or has no realistic alternative but to do so,” the AG wrote.
Mkhwebane said while she was grateful for the budget allocation, it was not “nearly enough for an institution that watches over more than 1000 organs of state”.
The report stated current liabilities exceeded current assets by R41,700,683.
Part of the problem was that effective and appropriate steps were not taken to prevent irregular expenditure amounting to nearly R20 million in the 2017/18 financial year, bringing the total balance to nearly R43 million.
“A lot of the irregular expenditure was as a result of lack of proper contract extensions and failure to obtain approval of deviations from relevant authorities or delegated officials,” said PP spokesperson Oupa Segalwe.
“Exacerbating the problem was the fact that our supply chain management unit was severely under-capacitated. This somehow compromised segregation of duties, enforcement of compliance and monitoring. While the contracts entered into during the 2017/18 year were irregular, they are still legally binding on us and have to be honoured.”
One of these was a 2006 contract with a travel agent to the value of R8 million. As these things do, the money ran out but the office of the PP continued to utilise it, “in excess of the original contract amount without the necessary prior approval”.
Then there’s a contract with an off-site document storage company, a critical component of the PP, which was “extended without obtaining prior approval. Additional payments were made above the original contract value without approval.”
The PP has also had dealings with a leasing firm for its Kuruman office. “The service provider has not cleared his tax matters with SARS and continues to be non-compliant with SARS. Payments have been made to the non-compliant vendor.”
Segalwe told The Citizen yesterday the travel contract was cancelled more than a year ago.
“Payments made to the travel agency for services rendered after the contract value was exceeded were still due to the company. The [offsite document storage] matter is another non-compliance issue. The contract was approved. However, it transpired that the approval should not have been effected internally but at and by the National Treasury.”
He noted the leasing firm had sorted its tax issues out.
“There are no prospects of terminating the contract in the short term,” Segalwe said.
“This can only be done when the department of public works finds alternative office accommodation for the public protector in the area. Since April 2018, service providers’ tax statuses are verified prior to the processing of payments.”
Segalwe said key positions to enforce and monitor compliance had been filled, including the senior manager: supply chain management and chief financial officer positions.
“These officials are responsible for, among other things, ensuring compliance with all procurement prescripts in order to avoid irregular expenditure and other forms of financial misconduct. We also have an action plan where management commits to address the issues of non-compliance.”
Segalwe noted nine officials who were affected by the transactions in question were requested to explain their roles and reasons for failing to comply with the relevant prescripts as part of investigations.
“Their responses have been received and management is in the process of assessing these and, where grounds for disciplinary action exist, such action will be taken. This process is expected to be completed by 31 October.”
Mkhwebane told the committee her office had received 18,356 cases: “a variety of complaints ranging from everyday bread and butter matters to incidences of abuse of state resources and breaches of the executive code of ethics.”
“A closer look at the statistics shows that the department of home affairs continues to be the organ of state attracting the most complaints. In second place were municipalities, followed closely by the department of labour and its agencies,” Mkhwebane said.
“Other offenders included the department of justice and correctional services, the department of education, the Government Pensions Administration Agency and department of health.”