DA: Statement By Helen Zille, Democratic Alliance leader, on corruption in government (02/09/2009)

2nd October 2009

Corruption is like cancer. It attacks the healthy working of the economy; it spreads insidiously; and eventually it kills economic activity. Corrupt officials, like cancer cells, benefit themselves but harm all around them. Countries have been ruined by corruption.

South Africa has a huge problem with corruption which, if unchecked, will undermine our economy and jeopardise our national welfare. It is of the highest importance to set up measures to prevent corruption. But it is even more important to promote a high standard of public ethics where politicians and officials are proud to be in public service and see their first and only duty as providing honest and efficient administration for the people.

Unfortunately only too many politicians and officials in South Africa see their duty as, first, to serve the ruling party; second, to serve themselves and their families; and third, least and last, to serve the people. Indeed their attentions are often exhausted before they reach the third option. Here empty rhetoric suffices.

Unelected officials, in the national, provincial and local spheres, can decide upon the spending of enormous sums of public money - millions or even billions of Rand. They are in a position to choose whether the money will be spent in such a way as to provide the maximum public good at the best cost - or to benefit themselves. These officials are accountable to politicians. When politicians deploy their "cadres and comrades" into the posts that decide on the expenditure of billions of Rands, corruption usually follows. Both the politician and the official enrich themselves and protect each other's positions. That is why cadre deployment (otherwise known as cronyism) is the root cause of the failed state.

In South Africa now, all elected officials (national, provincial and local) are required every year to complete financial disclosure forms. They are required to declare their financial interests in companies, paid employment outside parliament, directorships, consultancies, and gifts and benefits greater than R1500. By 2008, the available disclosure forms showed that 59% of MPs had shares in companies and 45% had directorships.

Although this disclosure is obligatory, it is still legal for a politician to award a government contract to a company in which he has a financial interest. And indeed this happens all the time. For example, councillors at Bitou Municipality in Plettenberg Bay last year awarded four contracts to companies whose directors are employed at the municipality. In the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, a R3 million road tarring contract was awarded to a company whose director was a councillor at the metro.

Compliance with financial disclosure is unsatisfactory. According to the Public Service Commission's annual report for the year 2007/2008 only 48% of the forms were submitted by the prescribed date. In the Limpopo Legislature, it is unclear whether the disclosure forms have been renewed from 2004 to 2008.

Another problem is the refusal to release disclosure forms. Nelson Mandela Bay Metro has refused to release their disclosure forms as they claim that this information is confidential. In terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act and in the prevailing spirit of the South African Constitution, non-confidential information in these forms must be publicly available.

The disclosure forms contain a confidential section as well as a section that is open to public scrutiny. The public section relates to the official's financial interests. The confidential information is about his home address, his children and his spouse's affairs. The Nelson Mandela Bay Metro seems to be using the confidential section of the document to avoid having to publicly disclose. Its refusal to release the disclosure forms is particularly disturbing when one considers the conflicts of interest that have occurred there. In one case senior officials set up two fictitious companies and made them submit high tenders so that they could give the contract to another company of their own choice.

The DA intends to begin procedures against the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act to force it to release the public sections of the disclosure forms.

"Cadre deployment" in government is endemic in the Eastern Cape. It is no coincidence that corruption is also. And therefore, the Eastern Cape shows all the symptoms of the "failed state syndrome" that has tragic consequences, especially for the poor.

Whether because they are actually corrupt or just think that the financial disclosure process is an unnecessary chore, a number of politicians have been found guilty of non-disclosure and some punished. They include Tony Yengeni, former ANC chief whip, who received a large discount on a luxury car from one of the arms deal bidders; former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota, for failing to disclose his interests in an oil company; Winnie Madikizela-Mandela for failing to disclose a monthly extra-parliamentary income of around R50 000 from various donations; and 14 MPs for failing to disclose fully their directorships.

The DA wants there to be no doubt whatsoever that all officials are obliged to make full financial disclosure, and we want there to be no room for prevarication or evasion. We want the financial disclosure forms to be standardised into one form that will be used all over the country, in national, provincial and local legislatures. This will eliminate the uncertainty that pertains now. We also want to define very clearly what is confidential and what is public information. There must be no chance to hide public information behind the confidential.

The DA is proposing legislation to outlaw any officials from awarding government contracts to private companies in which they have interests. Public servants must not be able to do business with the state. That is an invitation to corruption.

We are going to launch a national campaign demanding financial disclosure forms for all elected representatives and officials. I intend writing to all DA members urging them to action on this.

While all these measures for enforcing disclosure are most important, they can never on their own guarantee clean and principled public service. For one thing, there are always loopholes. For example, information on spouses is confidential, so officials could set up companies in their spouse's name and give government contracts to them. It is difficult to counter such corruption.

What is even more important is to foster high ethical standards. Public service should be regarded as a high and proud calling. To serve one's country should be regarded as an honour and to seek corrupt gain should be regarded as dishonourable. It so happens that elected officials in South Africa are very well paid compared with the populace at large, which makes resorting to corruption even more disgraceful.

The rule of law is the foundation for our civilisation but it can only work properly if it is honesty implemented. The most successful and prosperous countries have clean administration and their public officials work to high standards of integrity, accountability and transparency. Morality is important to them. The most unsuccessful countries are corrupt, and often reduced to poverty by corruption. For their officials, public service is merely a means of self-enrichment.

South Africa must ensure it joins the clean and successful group of countries.