Coronavirus graft scandals shake South Africa’s president
South Africa is reeling from coronavirus-linked corruption scandals that have battered President Cyril Ramaphosa’s credibility and the country’s image abroad but spurred unprecedented efforts to boost transparency.
The outcry began with reports that local government officials were hoarding and selling food donations meant for families without income during the lockdown.
Then some hospitals found that state purchases of masks, gowns and other protective equipment (PPE) were not reaching staff.
But anger reached its zenith when funds from a landmark $29 billion relief package went missing. Newly-unemployed South Africans queued for hours for grants in chilly winter mornings, only to be told their share of the aid was not available.
“That corruption is more real than previous cases when money was stolen from (state-owned enterprises) Eskom and Transnet,” said economic analyst Thabi Leoka.
“When hungry families are waiting for food packages, the realness of it is just very stark.”
Scandals moved up the political chain last month when the husband of presidential spokeswoman Khusela Diko was accused of securing a multimillion-rand contract for protective gear.
Further probes into coronavirus equipment tenders have since thrown other high-profile figures into the limelight.
They include ruling African National Congress (ANC) party secretary-general Ace Magashule and top health official Bandile Masuku.
Ramaphosa has vowed to go after individuals and companies behaving like a “pack of hyenas circling wounded prey”.
“When corruption emerges in a situation that thrusts the issue of trust and social compact into focus… the stakes are higher,” said Karam Singh, head of investigations at the South Africa-based Corruption Watch.
“There is a real moment now to push for reform”.
South Africa is no stranger to graft.
The ruling ANC forced ex-president Jacob Zuma to step down over corruption allegations in 2018.
He was accused of systematically plundering government coffers during his nine-year reign in a scandal known as “state capture”.
Ramaphosa won 2019 elections on an anti-corruption ticket.
But the president has been slow to clean out the rot that flourished under his predecessor.
“Whenever there is huge government expenditure on procurement, corruption risks emerge,” Singh told AFP, blaming “systemic weakness” and “political patronage”.
Experts agree that Ramaphosa should have introduced additional checks to prevent individuals from enriching themselves through the pandemic.
“(Ramaphosa) stuck his neck out quite early to say that COVID money would be watched very carefully,” said Stellenbosch University fellow Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, specialised in graft and public sector ethics.
“His personal assurances have fallen flat (showing) that Ramaphosa does not have a handle on corruption.”
Coronavirus was a tough leadership test for a leader whose popularity was dwindling even before the pandemic.
Ramaphosa has been attacked on all fronts for his response to the outbreak, and the graft scandals have only provided more bait.
“South Africans are tired of these empty gestures,” said Democratic Alliance party leader John Steenhuisen early this month. “We have a spectator president”.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said the corruption allegations had spotlighted Ramaphosa’s weakness within the ANC and turned more citizens against him.
“The theft is so crass… and public anger will go into next year’s local government elections,” warned Mathekga.
In a statement on Tuesday, veterans of the armed struggle in ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe wing described “the issue of COVID-19 looting” as “truly the litmus test for President Ramaphosa”.
For Leoka, the latest graft scandal would also give Ramaphosa less leeway with funds from multilateral organisations lent to help mitigate the economic fallout of coronavirus.
Despite the pitfalls, some analysts believe the coronavirus context presents a chance to finally spur Ramaphosa and his government into gear.
“In this moment there is an expression of state power that we have never seen before,” Singh said.
This month, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni called for all PPE tenders to be made public, while several provincial governments disclosed details of their coronavirus-related expenditures.
South Africa’s Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is investigating over 160 companies to check the legitimacy of coronavirus-related equipment and services provided.
It will publish all contracts for protective gear for health workers.
“That transparency… gives us an opportunity to find documents in a centralised place, rather than having to follow people who are willingly hiding information,” SIU spokesman Kaizer Kganyago told AFP.
Schulz-Herzenberg noted that it had taken a pandemic for the ANC to take the “necessary and quite ordinary steps” of making tenders public.
“This is what we needed years ago,” she said.
But Mathekga doubted coronavirus would be enough to “change the moral basis” of South African politics.
“If a system has reached a point where rot is displayed at each and every opportunity,” he said. “That is what you will continue to see.”
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