Columns 13.5.2017 06:59 am

We’ve moved from a government that tolerates thievery to a government of thieves

President Jacob Zuma

President Jacob Zuma

The political structure looks increasingly like a mere criminal enterprise.

In 2015, President Jacob Zuma signed a public service regulation banning government employees from doing business with the state.

Finish and klaar. Anyone who contravened the regulation would get the boot and be prosecuted.

It was, said the ANC at the time, evidence of its determination to rid government of dishonest employees.

This week, the watchdog body of parliament, the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa), was told by Auditor-General officals that government employees are continuing to steal millions of rands by benefiting from the state procurement process. Correctional services spent R5.8 million on awards where the suppliers were connected to employees.

Trade and industry misspent R5.6 million and R4.8 million respectively, while water and sanitation forked out R3 million.

The police and justice departments spent R15 million and R6 million on suppliers connected to employees.

Scopa chair Themba Godi remarked upon the irony that the two worst-performing departments – the “ones who have gone rogue” – were also the ones responsible for maintaining law and order.

These are not enormous amounts. But the AG’s figures hint at far more than they show.

It’s like a few point-and-shoot pictures from the depths of the Amazon jungle – it is the enormity of what lies beyond the frame of the photograph that actually gives the true scale.

And so, every month, the political structure that runs South Africa looks increasingly less like a government and more like a criminal enterprise. It’s raison d’etre is not to deliver public goods and services to a nation that it serves.

It is rather to divert revenue and assets from the citizenry at large, for the benefit of a corrupt mafia. The tender system has been subverted. It is no longer about contractors providing at a competitive price.

In many cases it is simply a siphon, moving the tax and rate contributions of a hard-working citizenry directly into the pockets of the friends and families of crooked officials.

The corruption of political institutions is not unusual and exists everywhere in the world. But it is not coincidence that indexes measuring national corruption correlate inversely perfectly with indexes that measure democratic health.

What makes South Africa worrisome is the increasingly brazen scale of state-sanctioned thievery.

In eight short years we have moved from having a government that tolerated thievery at the margins, to having a government of thieves.

Previous ANC administrations were not free of the problem. Kickback allegations around the R30 billion arms procurement deal of 1999 continue to this day, undampened by the Seriti commission’s blanket of exculpation.

There is a difference, however, between management occasionally dipping some fingers into the till.

The importance of that difference is captured in Mark Gevisser’s biography of President Thabo Mbeki, in which he warned that a Jacob Zuma presidency would reduce South Africa to “just another African kleptocracy”.

Today, increasing numbers of South Africans are faced with the choice of either blowing the whistle on looting, or joining in while there is still something to be looted.

Mbeki’s vision has come to pass. Zuma has presided over the moral evisceration of the nation.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer

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