As the country approaches what authorities describe as a difficult period in the fight against the spread of COVID-19, Public Protector Adv. Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s office has over the last four months seen a rapid surge in the number of complaints of conduct and service failure relating to the pandemic. Service failure allegations account for a lion’s share of the grievances, with as many as 450 people having approached the office to complain about what they deem unreasonable grounds for declining their applications for the R350-a-month special social relief of distress grant. The grant was announced in April as aid for the unemployed who did not already receive any other social grant or Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) benefits. In most cases, the complainants either allege that they were not provided with reasons as to why their applications were unsuccessful or that the applications were declined on the basis that the applicants were found to be recipients of some form of income or that they qualified for UIF, which they disputed.
Regarding conduct failure and in addition to the previously reported investigations into alleged maladministration and irregularities on the procurement process relating to the R37million Beitbridge Border Post Fence and the R30million Gauteng e-Government Information Technology tender, Adv. Mkhwebane’s office is looking into several other matters.
In Mpumalanga, the office is investigating alleged tender irregularities in the awarding of a Quarantine Camp tender. It has been alleged that the Zithabeseni facility, which got the contract, is dilapidated and a health hazard for everyone who is under quarantine at the premises. The complainant further alleged that there has been no provision for necessities such as food and toilet paper at the facility.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the office is probing allegations of irregularities in the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) by the provincial Department of Education. It has been alleged that the department procured the PPE at inflated prices.
In the Eastern Cape, the Public Protector is looking into allegations that a lodge which is being used as a quarantine site for COVID-19 is owned by a Member of the Executive Council. There is also the case of alleged irregularities in respect of the R400million e-learning equipment (tablets) tender.
The Public Protector has also embarked on an own-initiative investigation into allegations of maladministration, improper conduct and the misappropriation of public funds by the Eastern Cape Department of Health in relation to the medical scooters project.
In addition to these, the office is dealing several other COVID-19 related service delivery complaints including the provision of water and sanitation, repatriation of expats, waste management, distribution of food parcels, access to housing, access to health, customary initiations and cultural practices and precautionary measures to mitigate employee health and safety risks. A Steering Committee consisting of 10 Senior Investigators, who are led by an Executive Manager, has been set up to focus on COVID-19 related matters. Commenting on the increasing claims of abuse of public resources in the name of the pandemic, Adv. Mkhwebane said her office has been vocal on the matter from the very beginning. “We have been consistent in our call on the bureaucracy to exercise prudence when it comes to spending public funds on COVID-19 related goods and services. We have stressed that deviation from normal procurement processes is not a declaration of an open season to pillage. We are looking at a few other matters in which we may launch own-initiative investigations,” she said.
The Public Protector plans to meet with the Minister of Social Development to bring to her attention the special social relief of distress grant grievances, with a view to finding a speedy resolution to the complaints received. The meeting will be the latest in a series of COVID-19 related engagements with, among others, the Ministers of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation; Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs and Basic Education as well as the Auditor-General (AG) and the Special Investigation Unit (SIU).
During these meetings, the Ministers were encouraged to be responsive to service delivery related complaints and expedite the delivery of services while the engagements with the AG and the SIU were for the purpose of developing mechanisms to investigate COVID-19 cases in a collaborative manner.
Meanwhile, Deputy Public Protector Adv. Kholeka Gcaleka and Chief Operations Officer, Mr. Charles Mohalaba, will on 04 and 05 August 2020 conduct site inspections at Mthatha General, Sulenkama, Livingstone and Uitenhage hospitals in the Eastern Cape following reports of deteriorating conditions at the public facilities.
According to Adv. Gcaleka, it is critical to establish how both the public and medical personnel are coping with the pressures brought by the pandemic under the alleged conditions. Said Adv. Gcaleka: “We have seen various disturbing media reports about worsening conditions at some of these hospitals and this is a grave concern for us. If there are indeed systemic service delivery issues and acts of improper conduct, maladministration and gross violation of human rights, we’d like to intervene with a view to seeing to it that people get prompt, quality services.”
Statement issued by Office of the Public Protector