9 August 2020
In February 1995, president Nelson Mandela said his government was alarmed by the threat that corrupt norms, which were implanted by apartheid, may survive and overwhelm the country.
Closing a debate on the state of the nation address, during which the issue of corruption loomed large, the country’s first democratic president vowed to forestall graft as the government set about building new values in the public service.
He warned: “… if the sanctions against corrupt practices are not carried in every corner with equal fervour – government and civil service, political parties, private business and non-governmental organisations – this scourge will remain with us.”
A few years after the late statesman issued the stern warning, the government was engulfed by allegations of massive bribery in the so-called Arms Deal, the ANC’s original sin in 1999.
Mandela’s words and the various scandals (Travelgate, Nkandlagate, Guptagate) over the years come to mind as the public outrage over the theft of funds meant to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic boils over.
In the last couple of weeks, the country has been in the grip of what one can term “Covidgate”, a shameful, frenzy looting of public resources during a global pandemic.
Trade union federation Cosatu has characterised this theft of public funds correctly by saying: “The story of the PPE [personal protective equipment] procurement is a horror story of the state wasting precious and scarce finances on corruption and unnecessary middlemen during the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes; it is the story of the betrayal of the safety of healthworkers, who are being placed at risk due to the supply of substandard products.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa faces what is perhaps his biggest test since ascending to the Union Buildings in February 2018.
The ground is slowly shifting underneath Ramaphosa and many among his supporters are starting to grow impatient with his leadership.
Cosatu said the ANC under Ramaphosa continued to be seen as “a rent-seeking, unaccountable caste”. It reminded him that he won the ANC leadership race in 2017 on the card of fighting corruption.
The government this week took a commendable decision to end the emergency procurement of PPE, amid allegations of wanton corruption. But will this be enough?
We should remember Mandela’s words: “… if the sanctions against corrupt practices are not carried in every corner with equal fervour – government and civil service, political parties, private business and NGOs – this scourge will remain with us.”