The fight against corruption may falter while the country deals with the Covid-19 pandemic, as a budget cut of R1.7 billion is being “bandied about” for the already perennially cash-strapped justice sector, and it could potentially cripple key corruption-busting institutions.
This is the picture that emerged after the Department of Justice and its entities – notably the corruption fighters, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the public protector – appeared before the Portfolio Committee on Justice over the past month to present their annual performance plans and budgets.
Acting director-general of the department of justice JB Skosana told the committee on Friday a figure of R1.7 billion is being “bandied about” as a budget cut for an adjusted budget to finance the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He added that he hoped by March next year Covid-19 would be something of the past, to avoid “the pain of a R1.9 billion budget cut”.
“If we thought that pre-Covid things were challenging enough, well, it just got exponentially worse,” National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi remarked at the same meeting.
The Department of Justice already faces a shortfall of R154 million on its initial budget, due to unexpected Covid-19-related expenses.
According to the department’s presentation to the committee, the budget cut can have the following effects:
- Not filling key positions, such as prosecutors, court interpreters, maintenance officers, estate administrators and administrative staff providing corporate services, such as finance, human resources and IT;
- Compromised level of security provisioning in courts and department buildings;
- A sluggish eradication of backlog cases; and
- Increased threats to witnesses due to the reduction of protection services.
The department further expects a budget cut to hinder Legal Aid SA’s ability provide legal representation for the indigent and vulnerable citizens, negatively impact the SIU’s performance, the response to fraud and corruption in the state, and to render the Public Protector unable to meet contractual obligations and service delivery targets.
In fact, when Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane appeared before the committee earlier this month, she asked for an increase on the initial budget.
Acting chief financial officer Tshiamo Senosi said the National Treasury had asked the public protector to cut 17% of its 2020/2021 budget, adding this would amount to about R57.6 million.
He said the public protector would not be able to implement its targets for the 2020/2021 financial year if the budget was cut, adding it was not in a position to absorb any budget cuts and this had been communicated to the Treasury.
The public protector instead requested additional funding for the next three financial years – R53 million for 2020/2021, R41 million for 2021/2022, and R50.5 million for 2022/2023.
Civil society organisation Corruption Watch expressed its deep concern that budgets could lead to reduced funding for the SIU and NPA.
“We know that during the era of state capture, the NPA, in particular, lost significant skills when it came to its ability to conduct complex prosecutions involving allegations of corruption,” said Karam Jeet Singh, head of legal and investigations at Corruption Watch.
“Part of the battle against corruption is the re-establishment of political will to ensure that those accountable for state capture are held accountable, and that our institutions are re-capacitated such that, in future, they can withstand political pressure.”
Singh said re-establishing strong independent state institutions is seriously hampered by these kinds of budget cuts.
“Reversing the era of state capture will be seriously hampered if adequate funding to investigate and prosecute corruption is not provided.”
He said they understood the NPA and its Investigative Directorate, established to pursue corruption matters, already faced resource and skills challenges prior to this pending budget cut.
Indeed, when Batohi appeared before the committee last year, she listed among the NPA’s internal challenges “severe budgetary limitations”, which had led to high vacancy rates, low staff morale as well as limited professional development and training.
Additional funding to fill prosecutors’ posts was found, and the NPA went on a massive recruitment drive, but not all these posts have been filled.
“The NPA is in dire need of this funding,” Batohi told the committee last week.
She said the NPA is “no way near full capacity” to fulfil its mandate.
When parliament went through the budgetary process last year, the SIU also raised the unsustainability of its funding model, and concerns about the size of the public protector’s funding have been raised from the time of Mkhwebane’s predecessor, Thuli Madonsela.
The year before, MPs from both sides of the aisle expressed concern about budget cuts for the justice department when it was debated in May 2018.