Analysis

The euphemism of accountability

By Themba Godi

It was in 2009 when one of the public officials made an astonishing remark after a SCoPA hearing that “coming to parliament is a waste of time for public officials because they get to listen to parliamentarians asking questions about complex issues they don’t understand”. The official went on to complain about how he missed “an investment promotion trip to the UK as he was forced to come to parliament for three consecutive weeks”. According to this official, accountability to parliament should have been paused until he had undertaken his international trip to promote “investment” as he put it.

In an almost similar contempt, one of the ministers once complained that Parliament’s insistence for senior public officials to appear before SCoPA was tantamount to micro managing her department. It was the minister’s view that SCoPA and other committees were asking too much of her departmental officials thus oversight should be content with written submissions sent to the committee and should not ask questions directly to officials.

In an outrageous act of irony, the same ministers and officials eagerly await parliament to approve budgets to their respective departments yet accountability for the expenditure of such budgets is not eagerly embraced. This is one of many paradoxes of leadership in our public sector system. For long Parliament has tolerated this behaviour, partly through the patronage political machinery, that has enabled public officials to get away with short changing the public and Parliament.

While this was a general norm at some stage, it’s worth mentioning that other public officials voluntarily take their accountability to SCoPA seriously. Some even risk political chastisement by disclosing details that implicate their political principals. In the past, we would have easily spared public officials reprieve and argued that accountability was a “foreign” virtue given the secrecy on which the apartheid regime operated; in an environment of intense corruption it will be careless of SCoPA to take that route.

It is also known that public officials dislike the negative public exposure through SCoPA as it exposes their delinquency in managing public resources in line with public expectations. While oversight and accountability are inherently meant to expose wrongdoing, it also serves as an opportunity for the committee to showcase and recognise exemplary public service practices.

In SCoPA we have experienced and celebrated instances where public officials diligently demonstrated good administrative acumen in managing public funds. As we are taking a break from our oversight work (until August 2018), we will remain focused on pursuing any incidences of corruption and maladministration with vigour.

Since October 2017, we have held numerous public hearings with state institutions, national departments and municipalities. We have also undertaken oversight visits to various state institutions in order to gain first-hand information that will either confirm or denounce the claims made by public officials in our meetings. All these initiatives were aimed at advancing the cause for good governance and administration in our system. We have deliberately sought to position SCoPA and parliament at the forefront of good governance, administration and consequence management in the public service.

We have a clear understanding that our oversight tenacity will go a long way in restoring the dignity of Parliament and inject hope in the oversight system that has not lived up to expectations for too long. We are also encouraged by the spirit shown by other committees of Parliament in holding the executive accountable and this augers well for the development of the country. While the task ahead remains challenging, the pockets of excellence that have emerged from various committees during this term of Parliament ought to be replicated and supported.

As we march towards the end of this term of Parliament our experience has shown us that financial imprecision in the public sector system is becoming more complex. It is no longer a rudderless act of incompetence by public servants but rather a systematic process of undermining government progress through corruption. We have noted shocking incidences of callousness by political leadership in meddling with administration. If anyone thinks that the SASSA / CPS debacle and the corruption at the department of Water & Sanitation to mention but a few, were merely acts of negligence by officials, think again.

These are signs of a system that needs to be closely protected from those who are meant to provide stewardship over it. Parliament and other sectors of society need to be a lot closer in calling for increased accountability. In recognition of this need, it is therefore imperative for Parliament to consider the following:

  • Continue building strong accountability institutions in order to control corruption, one such institution is the Auditor General which plays a critical exposure role for Parliament
  • Provide sufficient and adequate powers to those institutions in order to widen the web of accountability within the existing accountability parameters
  • Capacitate members of Parliament with cutting edge oversight support to circumvent the ever tricky and versatile nature of corruption
  • Develop legal instruments that will enforce the recommendations of Parliament to enable an impactful sting in the parliamentary initiatives
  • Entrench a culture of consequences in the public service through the law enforcement agencies such as the NPA, SIU, Hawks etc
  • Creatively open space for whistle blowers in the oversight committee system to deal with day to day incidences of corruption

While the above thoughts may not exhaustively deal with the menace of maladministration and corruption, they remain a necessary start. We are also encouraged by the unfolding amendment of the Public Audit Act which seeks to provide the Auditor General with additional enforcement powers where there are explicit incidences of recklessness in managing public funds. These amendments will send a strong signal to rogue elements within our public sector financial system that government is taking consequences seriously.

The prevailing anti-corruption rhetoric spurred by the “thuma mina” drive is important but the political will becomes a serious undertaking that requires close examination. SCoPA will only drop the guard when we are certain that the prevailing political will is not artificial, for we have seen in the past that political will is most enduring when it is institutionalized and not dependent on the personality and intentions of a particular person or campaign.

It is SCoPA’s view that the political will is most effective when it is inclusive, incorporating the interests of a wide range of constituencies hence our call for Parliament to creatively open a space for whistle blowers in the oversight committee system to deal with day to day incidences of corruption. Citizens bear the heavy economic and social costs of corruption; it is for this reason they look to Parliament, the people they have elected to set the outline of law and oversee its implementation, for help.

We shall not dare relent and evade our national duty, our collective political resolve needs to be elevated now more than ever.

 

Themba Godi is Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCoPA)

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