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Hands up… This is a re-robbery! - Taxpayers get a second fleecing as State Capture Inquiry costs approach R1 billion

26 July 2020 Gareth Stokes

South Africa’s long-suffering taxpayers face another daunting ordeal as the government-funded State Capture Inquiry, established to investigate how we were robbed of billions over a period of decades, gobbles up almost R1billion of the little we have left. A presentation by journalist, Erin Bates, given during an Old Mutual Investments Insights webinar, left this taxpayer with that ‘sick to the pit of your stomach’ feeling that accompanies forgetting to cover “zero” on the roulette board.

Criminal prosecutions unlikely

There is some irony in the fact that taxpayers, those funding this charade, want to know when the perpetrators of fraud and state capture will end up behind bars, because apparently that was never the intention. After trotting out the tired “there was plenty of corruption under Apartheid” line to misdirect the audience, Bates reminded us that such inquiries were not intended to yield criminal prosecutions. “This is an inquisitorial rather than prosecutorial process,” she said, adding that the proceedings were more useful as a tool to frame the current political arena: “This forum says more about the politics of the day than state capture”. And that, dear reader, seems like an appropriate time to haul out the tried and tested title of that Alan Paton book, “Cry the beloved country”. 

After a decade under Jacob Zuma, and more than two decades under ANC ‘rule’, we are faced with the unpleasant realisation that the institutions tasked with enforcing law and order are so incapacitated as to be irrelevant. Bates offered up recent quotes by those heading up the Department of Justice, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the Hawks, and the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to dash any hopes we may have had for speedy prosecutions of a wide range of fraud and corruption cases.

 

Head of the NPA, Advocate Shamila Batohi, when grilled for the umpteenth time on why there were no prosecutions despite the myriad admissions in the public domain, said: “People just want to see the wheels of justice are turning, but [the people] do not see they have been really crusted with dust; getting them to turn is extremely difficult”. Not to be harsh; but removing the dust is what Batohi is tasked with. 

Blind or not, her hands are tied

We can debate whether or not South Africa’s justice system is blind; but there is no arguing the fact that her hands are tied, especially in matters of political import. Bates suggested that there was “a demonstration of state capture” at most of the institutions tasked with investigating and prosecuting crime. The gradual erosion of skills, usually initiated by a political appointee to that institution, meant they were unable to act, even when they had ‘cut and dried’ cases. On the odd occasion when prosecutions were ready to proceed, the politicians simply called a halt to things. The SIU had, for example, undertaken extensive investigations into allegations of graft involving Bosasa and various correctional services departments as far back as 2009. A decade later and we have seen no successful prosecutions. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has talked tough on corruption; but after two years at the helm of South Africa Inc there is little evidence of tangible outcomes. His justice minister, Ronald Lamola, is on record that 2020 will be the year of action, with both urging the SIU not to allow investigations to gather dust. Ramaphosa reiterated this appeal in his 23 July 2020 State of Disaster address, where he urged tough action against anyone exploiting government’s COVID-19 relief funding. 

“What concerns me, and what concerns all South Africans, are those instances where funds are stolen, where they are misused, where goods are overpriced, where food parcels are diverted from needy households, and where there is corruption and mismanagement of public funds,” he said. We hope the president’s appeal to the SIU and other enforcement agencies bear fruit, because our prisons recently ejected thousands of petty criminals and have beds to spare. 

All aboard the gravy train

The State Capture Inquiry has a March 2021 deadline which, by all accounts, it is unlikely to hit. It is almost certain that they will request further extensions due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing national lockdown. We can therefore expect hundreds of millions more to be added to the ridiculous R700 million already spent on this fiasco. Given the failings of South Africa’s law enforcement capacity we may even see recommendations that a commission of inquiry be launched into the expenditures at this and other commissions. How is it possible, for example, that a legal enquiry is dishing out more than R18 million per month to pay for investigators and information technology support? 

The South African Revenue Services (SARS) also warranted a mention during Bates’ presentation, titled ‘Inquiring minds: Commissions of inquiry in South Africa”. She observed that incumbent SARS commissioner, Edward Kieswetter, had established a unit to look at state capture and monitor proceedings at the inquiry. This follows the unbundling by his predecessor, Tom Moyane, of various units that were tasked with investigating individuals with questionable business leanings. We wonder about Mr. Kieswetter’s view of government’s decision to ban alcohol and tobacco sale through lockdown; because many of these historic task forces were investigating illicit trade in such products. 

Inquiry in a digital age

“A characteristic that is specific to our times is the digital element of audience participation in the various commissions,” said Bates. South Africans are flocking to digital channels that offer live streams of the State Capture Inquiry proceedings, especially when high profile figures take to the stand. The presentation was given under the heading ‘inquiring minds’ for two reasons. “One is that commissions of inquiry demand work by inquisitorial minds that ask questions about phenomena like state capture, corruption and fraud,” concluded Bates. “But there is also an expectation for citizens to have inquisitorial minds”. 

She encouraged the audience to reflect on the performances playing out in the political arena. This means, on the one hand, considering the quantitative impact of fraud and corruption on critical infrastructure tenders at SOEs such as Sanral and Transnet. And on the other, considering political outcomes from a qualitative point of view.

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