Feb 4th 2010 | JOHANNESBURG | From The Economist print edition
THE wife of South Africa’s minister of state security, Siyabonga Cwele, has been arrested, charged with drug-trafficking. The corruption trial of Jackie Selebi, the country’s former chief of police and one-time Interpol boss, is to resume next month. The head of Armscor, the state defence-procurement company, was recently sacked for dishonesty. And the managing director of the freight-rail division of Trans- net, the state transport company, is fighting his suspension for an alleged serious breach of procurement regulations.
And so it goes on, one report of public-sector sleaze after another. Willie Hofmeyr, head of South Africa’s anti-corruption body, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), said it had identified 400,000 civil servants getting welfare payments to which they were not entitled. A further 6,000 senior government officials had failed to declare their business interests, as required by the law, and were awaiting disciplinary hearings. But the state’s ability to convict and punish the guilty was, he said, “pretty limited and, in some cases, almost completely non-existent”.
Still, the SIU had completed a seven-year investigation into massive fraud at the department of correctional services. As a result, corruption charges had been brought against 26 prison doctors and ten officials. A further 423 had been disciplined and the prison chief suspended.
The unit has now been called in to investigate more skulduggery in the ministry of public works, one of the biggest public-procurement departments, after a discovery that suppliers in cahoots with officials had been charging wildly inflated prices of up to four times the real costs. Public housing is another area particularly exposed to graft. The housing minister, Tokyo Sexwale, recently said that 923 corrupt officials in his department had been brought to book over various scams, including the construction of thousands of substandard low-cost homes for the poor, many of which were unfit for human inhabitation.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) says it is very worried. The “scourge” of corruption was “far worse than anyone imagines…at all levels of government”, admits Kgalema Motlanthe, the country’s vice-president. Too many “comrades” regard election to public office as simply a chance to get rich, concedes Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary-general. “We must move away from a culture of greed and self-enrichment to one of transparent accountability,” says its treasurer, Mathews Phosa.
President Jacob Zuma has vowed to do just that. Many may scoff. After all, Mr Zuma himself once faced corruption charges, escaping trial by the skin of his teeth on a legal technicality. Besides, many leaders of corrupt states make similar pledges, only to continue with their patronage and graft as before. But Mr Zuma, it is hoped, will prove an exception. In his state-of-the-nation speech to parliament on February 11th he is expected to promise “extraordinary steps” to beat the scourge.
Among the measures already mooted are a new law to facilitate easier and swifter prosecution of corrupt officials (at present, too many get suspended on full pay, sometimes for years, before simply being given another lucrative post); a review of the ANC’s “deployment” policies to ensure that jobs are filled by the most competent, not just those with the right connections; a ban on anyone holding public office from having links with firms doing business with the state for at least a year after leaving their posts; tougher rules and much greater openness in the award of public contracts; and better protection for local-authority accounting officers, who are often suspended or dismissed by their political bosses for poking their noses into smelly areas.
In the latest index of perceived corruption from Transparency International, a Berlin-based monitor, South Africa does quite well, coming 55th on a list of 180 countries. But corruption is a large and growing problem, entangled with a culture of black entitlement to compensate for past suffering under apartheid. Many South Africans seem relaxed about it. Whether Mr Zuma truly wants or is able to change that mindset remains to be seen.