In a shock development, finance minister Pravin Gordhan last week appointed a retired judge to probe allegations of impropriety against South African Revenue Service commissioner, Oupa Magashula. This is but the latest in a string of incidents undermining confidence in South African public institutions.
South Africans have become used to a variety of problems undermining the effective running of state departments, provincial governments and municipalities.
At present, key institutions – from the police to even the Public Protector – are experiencing problems. These range from alleged impropriety, breaches of good governance, financial mismanagement, maladministration, wastage, staff problems, fraud and corruption to political interference.
As a former SARS commissioner himself, who is credited with building up the institution to a model organisation with the pristine image it has acquired over two decades, the announcement must have been particularly painful for Gordhan.
His action followed the publication in City Press of a transcript of a secret tape recording of Magashula and a convicted drug dealer, Panganathan Marimuthu. Magashula allegedly offers a 28-year-old woman a job at SARS and apparently can be heard saying that even a husband could be found for her, that she should be earning a million rand and should have her own seaside apartment.
The circumstances surrounding the recording are not clear, but the authenticity of the tape recording has been confirmed.
While a SARS spokesperson reportedly said the institution had no reason to doubt the integrity of the commissioner in either his professional or private life, Gordhan said in a statement that he had decided “to institute a thorough investigation of the matter”.
"After consultations with the minister of justice (Jeff Radebe), I will appoint a retired judge to establish whether there was any breach of SARS processes, good governance, the nature of any possible indiscretion and to advise on appropriate remedies where breaches might have occurred."
But Gordhan added that some taxpayers increasingly rely on bullying SARS officials to prevent the pursuit of investigations as prescribed by the law, suggesting that there may be more to the incident than meets the eye.
Meanwhile, the South African Police Service seems to be going from bad to worse. British newspapers this past week referred to it as “South Africa’s notorious police” – a description once reserved for countries such as Mexico, Colombia or Nigeria. The perception developing is one of a trigger-happy, out-of-control rogue force.
This is hardly surprising, considering among others:
· a former national police commissioner being sent to jail for corruption;
· another being fired over similar allegations;
· the killing of protester Andries Tatane making international headlines;
· the shooting of Marikana mineworkers; and
· the death of Mozambican taxi driver, Mido Macia, after police dragged him behind their van.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is also having its share of seriously bad weather. Once considered one of the best fighting forces in the world, it has lost its shine and most of its effective capacity over the past few decades.
Discipline and morale at various times reached unprecedented low points, with soldiers even going on strike. A lack of spares, technical know-how, trained personnel and money is rendering costly new ships and planes useless.
Despite commendable participation in various peace-keeping missions across Africa, there have been major disasters such as the bloody nose that Lesotho’s soldiers gave the SANDF in 1998 when it intervened in political turmoil in that country.
Then there was last week’s fiasco in the Central African Republic where 13 South African soldiers were killed in a fight with rebels after the president had fled the country.
Questions are being asked about why they had gone there in the first place in support of only one party to the political conflict in that country, ostensibly in terms of a deal struck between President Jacob Zuma and CAR President, Francois Bozizé.
And even more questions are being asked about why top military commanders and South Africa’s political leaders had ignored warnings by military officers that it would be “a suicide mission”.
In the interim, another of South Africa’s watchdog bodies, the Competition Commission (CC), is being investigated by the Public Protector following allegations of maladministration, financial mismanagement and victimisation of staff. Several senior managers have recently resigned from the CC.
In turn, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela faces a likely investigation by the Auditor-General, should moves by the ANC succeed in parliament. The quest by the parliamentary oversight committee to have her investigated follows a dossier compiled by Madonsela’s former deputy Mamiki Shai, detailing her alleged high-publicity and costly approach to investigations. Madonsela herself, however, has asked for these allegations to be investigated.
Last week, one or possibly more employees complained about her wanting to have her former professor do a R300 000 presentation for her office. After problems arose, Madonsela did not pay the professor.
The country’s national broadcaster, the SABC, has gained infamy over the shenanigans of its senior staff and the high turnover of its board members. It is currently embroiled in yet another of these crises.
Meanwhile, leaderless most of the time, it squanders its budget on cheap third-rate, 30-year-old television productions in the name of austerity while its senior staff are among the best remunerated public servants in the country.
There are numerous other public institutions and agencies that have been plagued by crises, such as the Land Bank that nearly collapsed in 2009, the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission that came up with a name change as a remedy for the chaotic state of its affairs in 2011, and even the South African Bureau of Standards.
In some cases, allegations may yet prove to be completely false, but clearly the general state of public institutions not only undermines public confidence – it scares international investors and threatens the country’s place in the hierarchy of nations.