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In South Africa, COVID-19 has exposed greed and spurred long-needed action against corruption

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa wears a fact mask promoting anti-COVID-19 safety measures

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. Flickr; GovernmentZa

Corruption Watch

Along with other ordinary South Africans, we at Corruption Watch have followed with increasing dismay the growing number of reports of corruption related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The perpetrators of this corruption have been unashamedly brazen in their hijacking of the emergency measures put into place to deal with COVID-19 in South Africa. Such measures included, among others, a R500-billion (US$30 billion) relief package to provide for food parcels for the needy, a temporary social grant increase for over 16 million beneficiaries and the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) for those whose salaries were affected. To implement these and other measures, the government also put in place emergency procurement regulations.

All of these have proved irresistible to those with thieving tendencies.

Back in March, Corruption Watch warned of the vulnerabilities in the emergency procurement measures, noting that the R500-billion stimulus package presented a fine opportunity for greedy officials to dip their hands into the COVID-19 cookie jar.

Sadly, we were right.

Food parcels issued during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa. Photo: Aadil Vally, Corruption Watch

Corruption on a grand scale

Abuse of TERS was enabled in part by private firms who claimed benefits on behalf of unknowing employees or deceased people and then pocketed the cash, or used the benefits paid out for their own purposes. The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is probing 75 of these businesses for Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) fraud.

In the same way, the complicity of the private sector in abusing procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) has resulted in the looting of billions of Rands which should have been directed to the vital response plan.

It is unlawful for public servants in South Africa to do business with the state, but in recent months we have received complaints over the shameless manipulation of TERS and the theft of food parcels to sway political favour. Emergency procurement regulations largely served to enable government officials to rake in the millions through dubious deals with opportunistic companies that suddenly diversified into the PPE market.

One charged response came from Kingsley Tloubatla, who represents an association of black-owned pharmaceutical companies: “You don’t see companies like ours going out to tender for RDP houses or engineering projects. Why did government now suddenly procure PPE goods, which we’re licensed to sell, from companies that normally operate as IT service providers, building contractors or engineering firms?”

As for the much needed social relief grants meant for the unemployed and the informal business sector, less than half of those eligible have received them, while others have fraudulently tried to claim. Monitoring these discrepancies has proved difficult for the government.

Why did government now suddenly procure PPE goods, which we’re licensed to sell, from companies that normally operate as IT service providers, building contractors or engineering firms?
Kingsley Tloubatla Chairperson, Black Pharmaceuticals Industry Association (BPIA)

ANC pushed into action

The public has rightfully expressed outrage and disgust over the scale of the exposed corruption – and pushed the government to take action. At a recent meeting of the leadership of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), it was resolved that all members implicated in corruption must step aside. The definition of ‘step aside' in this context has been debated and produced various interpretations from analysts.

While he now appears to slowly be gaining the political upper hand, President Cyril Ramaphosa has faced strong opposition to the ANC’s anti-corruption resolutions. The fiercest push back has come from his predecessor Jacob Zuma and party secretary-general Ace Magashule, who belong to an opposing faction. Choosing to ignore a recent accusatory letter from Zuma, Ramaphosa appears to be focused on emboldening the ANC’s internal oversight body, with several leaders being hauled before the party’s integrity committee. The president, who also has a cloud hanging over his head, will get his own chance to come clean.

In the lead up to the game-changing meeting, Ramaphosa lambasted the corrupt in the organisation and called for the ANC to “publicly disassociate itself from anyone, whether business donor, supporter or member, accused of corruption or reported to be involved in corruption”.

South Africans have heard strong words before. Harsh action has been promised, but has never materialised, and people are understandably disillusioned and sceptical. But there is a slight sense this time that political will is finally stirring.

Two important developments support that perception. Firstly, towards the end of August the government published the full list of all contracts awarded under the emergency procurement regulations, opening them up for public scrutiny. This is something that Corruption Watch has long called for.

Secondly, the entire management of the UIF – custodian of TERS – was suspended on 2 September, after findings by the Auditor-General revealed serious, avoidable flaws in the scheme. We hope this is the start of a wave of decisive action against the deep-seated corruption that is holding our country back.

Civil society turns the screws

Civil society, as expected, has been outspoken and relentless in its efforts for transparency and accountability. The C19 People’s Coalition, with which Corruption Watch is associated, exists to ensure that South Africa’s response is rooted in social justice and democratic principles. We are also a member of the Budget Justice Coalition, a collective that calls for more efficient use and stricter oversight around the use of funds earmarked for COVID-19 relief.

Corruption Watch, in its own right, has been highly active on national and community radio, in the press, writing to the president, and in association with other organisations and TI chapters, calling for action. Our blog Lockdown Life, meanwhile, documents the personal experiences of those struggling with the effects of the above-mentioned corruption, especially in the early days of the lockdown when controls were much tighter.

But the stakes have never been higher, so we cannot stop applying pressure. The thing about corruption is that it thrives in darkness. For us to effectively fight it, it must be chased out into the light.

Only with sustained vigilance and a multi-faceted approach can corruption be uprooted and exposed. Oversight institutions like Parliament and the SIU need to act on corruption with a seriousness and commitment commensurate to the threat. Outgoing auditor-general Kimi Makwetu has warned that “even in the midst of a crisis, transparency and accountability for government spending to the benefit of citizens cannot take a backseat”. We couldn’t agree more.