Have they been brought to book?

Have you ever wondered what happens to all those cases of public-sector corruption and incompetence?

FOUR YEARS AFTER the Heath special investigating unit accused Willowmore district surgeon Dr Jacobus van Ravensteyn of defrauding the Eastern Cape health department of more than R500,000 his case has not been finalised and he is still being employed in the same job. According to reports van Ravensteyn submitted a claim for treating 40,596 patients for the 1995-96 financial year despite the fact that the total population for the Willowmore district is only 12,000. After he had already been paid, the Auditor-General’s office picked up the discrepancy and appointed private auditing firm Deloitte & Touche to investigate. It found that van Ravensteyn had been very busy indeed. On May 4, 1995, for instance, he claimed to have seen 472 patients — a consultation rate of one patient every minute in an eight-hour working day. His patient claims for August would have required him to work 22-hours a day every day; his 1995-96 travel claims of 49,157km meant he had to have been on the road (travelling at 100km an hour) eight hours a day for 61 days.

This is not an isolated case. Almost four years after he was first arrested on suspicion of fraud in the department of public works in East London, Dennis Maart is still suspended on full pay. He was originally arrested in July 1996 after fraud involving R450,000 was uncovered. The money was allegedly lost as a result of a number of transactions involving bogus contractors and employees working on non-existent projects. Maart appeared before the Zwelitsha District Court but no charges were put to him and the case was postponed.

Both of these cases were referred to the Heath special investigating unit and will, one hopes, lead to the full amounts being recovered. But the question remains why both officials are still being paid salaries out of public coffers and why, in the case of Dr van Ravensteyn, he is still in a position of responsibility for the administration of public resources. The fact is that despite their excellent work, public protection agencies such as the Auditor-General’s office, the Heath unit and the Public Protector do not have the capacity to follow up and monitor what happens to officials who are found guilty of acts of corruption. Nor can they guarantee that such officials will be effectively disciplined, retrained or dismissed from the public service. At best, they provide only a limited deterrent to corruption and maladministration.

Before it can investigate any case the Heath unit has to liaise with four separate government departments in order to have a presidential proclamation issued — a time-consuming process. Once the investigation is completed, and if the special tribunal attached to the unit finds the official guilty, he or she is compelled to repay stolen assets to the state. At this stage the unit may recommend that the official be subjected to internal disciplinary proceedings or criminal prosecution. However, it has no mandate to monitor or enforce these recommendations.

The Auditor-General’s office must generate its own income by charging the institutions that it audits. In many instances, however, because of a refusal or inability to pay for the audit, it cannot gain access to the financial statements of public institutions. Even when payment is secured, the failure to submit financial statements, deficiencies in accounting systems and the incomplete submission of records may make it impossible for the Auditor-General to "express an opinion" on the state of the institution’s financial management. In such cases there might be not only a lack of financial accountability but wholesale corruption. The information that is eventually released by the Auditor-General’s office is often of a highly general nature, which makes it very difficult to track individual cases of misconduct within departments.

The Public Protector has the power to investigate and report on a wide range of activities within the public service, from misconduct to maladministration and unlawful enrichment, and to take "appropriate remedial action". According to the Public Protector Act, 1994, however, such remedial action is restricted to mediation, conciliation and negotiation. The Public Protector may also offer advice on other appropriate remedies. Again, this agency has no specific mandate to follow-up and enforce the recommendations that it makes. The onus is on departments to report back on their activities to the Public Protector’s office. Departments that choose to ignore its recommendations are unlikely to report back.

Even in clear-cut cases of corruption, where officials have been investigated and found guilty of having abused their office for the purpose of enriching themselves, the most that these agencies can do is to force the official concerned to repay state monies and to recommend disciplinary or criminal proceedings. They can neither enforce these recommendations nor monitor their lack of enforcement. But if public officials who have been investigated and held responsible for acts of corruption continue to be employed, this sets the precedent that misconduct will be tolerated by public service management. There is no effective deterrent to corruption in the minds of public officials because the worst thing that can happen, in the event of their being caught, is that they will have to endure the inconvenience of repaying the full amount to the state. In many cases this amounts to being "punished" by being given an interest-free loan. Clearly an efficient and accountable public service cannot emerge under such conditions.

The Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) based at Rhodes University is devoted to filling this gap by following up individual cases of reported misconduct in the public sector of the Eastern Cape and to make its findings public. The essential tool for this work is to create a standardised database. The results of our first 20 cases, which include the two already mentioned, will be published on our web site later this year. There is no shortage of cases. When the PSAM began its work in March 1999 the province had already acquired a reputation for the mismanagement of public resources, corruption and failed service delivery second only to that of Mpumalanga.

While there is widespread public concern about the frequency with which acts of corruption are reported, what is even more disturbing is the scale of financial maladministration in the province. The Auditor-General’s 1996/1997 financial audits of Eastern Cape administration departments provide some indication of the extent of the problem:

  • nine out of ten departments failed to close off their accounting records at the end of the financial year;
  • nine out of ten departments failed to employ adequate loss control procedures;
  • nine out of ten departments either submitted inadequate personnel files for auditing or failed to submit them at all;
  • eight out of ten departments failed to mark payment vouchers and supporting documents as "paid" to prevent the re-use of these vouchers and documents;
  • all ten departments submitted insufficient documentation in support of payment vouchers;
  • eight out of ten departments failed to submit proper bank reconciliations;

within at least three departments financial bookkeeping and record keeping skills were manifestly incompetent.

Unauthorised expenditure in the department of corporate services alone shows that 19 wristwatches were purchased for long service awards at a cost of R11,308, but it could not be established to which staff members they were awarded. The budget for bursaries was increased by R2 million to R2,172,000 without explanation. Staff who had left continued to receive salaries 20 months after their names had been removed from the payroll, resulting in R1,084,281 in overpayments. An ex-employee was advanced R100,000 — or R91,000 more than the maximum permitted. Vouchers in support of payments of R996,360 for motor vehicle finance were either missing or incomplete. Of 14 vehicles allocated to East London for the year, ten could not be accounted for. Some of these errors might be considered trivial but collectively these ten departments were responsible for unauthorised or unaccounted for expenditure in the region of R190 million. And this in a province where 87 per cent of the population do not have basic sanitation services, nearly half do not have basic water supplies, 27.7 cent are illiterate, and where one in two adults is unemployed.

The state of the administration of public resources at the local government level in the province is even more alarming. According to provincial Auditor Singa Ngqwala, the Auditor-General’s office was unable to express audit opinions on the 1997-98 accounts and/or financial statements of 42 of the province’s 84 local authorities due to incomplete or non-submission of financial statements, deficient accounting systems, and a lack of supporting documentation.

This effectively means that the Auditor-General cannot account for the state of financial management within exactly half of the province’s local authorities for this period — a deeply disturbing state of affairs. If we consider that R37.7 billion was allocated nationally as the operating budget for 833 municipalities in1998, then on the basis of an equitable share of this amount, each municipality would have been granted roughly R43 million. In that case the Eastern Cape’s 84 local authorities would have obtained an approximate collective operating budget of R3.6 billion. This paints a picture of staggering financial mismanagement at the local government level in the province: with R1.8 billion in taxpayers money that cannot be accounted for.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude that all of these amounts of unaccounted expenditure have been deliberately siphoned off for "corrupt" purposes — that is as a result of "the illegal abuse of public office for private gain". In many cases officials may have corruptly enriched themselves at the expense of the state, but in many others it may simply be that these expenditures were not adequately authorised or substantiated because of the inexperience and incapacity of the officials administering them.

At present we do not have any objective and reliable data that could indicate which of these two factors is responsible for the poor administration of public resources within the province; "deliberate and intentional corruption" or a "benevolent and honest lack of capacity". By providing such data the PSAM will enable ordinary citizens to make informed decisions as to which of these two factors is at play in individual cases of misconduct within the public sector. We believe that there should be no place for public officials who have committed acts of corruption: they should be dismissed. There should also be no place for incompetent public officials in the management of public resources. If public officials genuinely lack financial and administrative skills then they should be retrained and have their skill levels upgraded, without delay.

The provincial government is well aware of the province’s poor record on delivery and in rooting out corruption. Eastern Cape premier Makhenkesi Stofile has just announced that he is setting up a provincial anti-corruption unit, a recommendation that emerged from the anti-corruption summit he convened in November to help restore public confidence. Many speakers at that summit cited the legacy of apartheid social engineering as the main cause of the province’s plight. It is impossible not to have some sympathy with this view. The new provincial administration had to incorporate the two former bantustan administrations of the Ciskei and Transkei comprising 38 departments and 125,300 civil servants.

More importantly they had to deal with officials steeped in a corrupt client-patron culture that provided low-wage, unskilled jobs to workers chosen on the basis of their loyalty to the political leadership of the day. Because individuals were appointed to public sector jobs during the apartheid era on the basis of personal connections rather than their skills, competencies or actual performance, the notion of entitlement to a wage without any form of corresponding social responsibility became widely entrenched. Many long-standing members of the apartheid and bantustan administrations continue to think and act in these terms. It is easier for newly-appointed officials to join this culture rather than challenge it. Thus an ethos of entitlement and secrecy continues to influence the working practices of the public service.

But while the legacy of apartheid may well explain why the Eastern Cape is in the underdeveloped state that it is, it does not excuse the consistently poor state of management of public resources within the province. Not all current values and beliefs within the public service have been carried over from the apartheid era, after all. In opposition to those who believe in the entitlement of public officials and their right to act in an unaccountable fashion are those who are attempting to entrench a new set of organisational values. These values are set out in South Africa’s excellent legislation for regulating the conduct of public officials and ensuring their accountability. The Constitution itself binds all public officials to act in accordance with the following basic values and principles:

  • a high standard of professional ethics;
  • efficient, economic and effective use of resources;
  • a development orientation;
  • impartial, fair, equitable and unbiased provision of services;
  • public participation in policymaking;
  • accountability;
  • transparency and the provision of accessible and accurate information to the public;
  • good human resource and career development practices.

These principles are fleshed out in considerable detail in the 1994 Public Service Act and the 1994 National Exchequer Act (to be replaced by the 1999 Public Finance Management Act). But new officials who want to follow these principles find themselves in a weak position as they encounter considerable resistance from those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Nothing would do more to strengthen the position of those groups and individuals fighting for transparency and accountability within the public service than to see corrupt officials promptly dismissed. The PSAM aims to provide the public and public service management with the information that will make such action more likely. Our monitoring will help to ensure that corrupt and other wayward public officials will no longer be allowed to flout public service regulations and their constitutional obligations with impunity.

How PSAM monitoring works in practice

1) Cases involving alleged public sector misconduct and corruption in the Eastern Cape (dating back to 1996) are drawn from sources including newspaper reports, the Heath unit archives, Auditor-General’s reports, transcripts of public accounts committee hearings, information from NGOs and community based organisations, and a standing request to all departments for a list of current disciplinary actions involving misconduct. For each case we analyse the specific sequence of events with respect to the public service regulations that were either breached or not implemented and establish what disciplinary procedures should have been taken against the individual(s) involved.

2) The case profile is then entered on our database and a PSAM researcher conducts a preliminary follow up in order to establish important background details for the case. This preliminary work involves many time-consuming phone calls during which the researcher is often passed from pillar to post, but it is essential to be fully primed for the next stage in the monitoring process.

3) A list of questions about the case is faxed to the permanent secretary of the relevant department. We ask what regulations were in fact breached; what disciplinary measures were taken; whether the officials concerned are still employed by the department; what efforts have been made to recoup losses, and what new management procedures and working practices have been introduced to prevent a recurrence.

4) After a notice period of approximately two weeks a recorded telephone follow-up interview is conducted with the permanent secretary in order to obtain an official response to these questions. We then transcribe this interview and publish it on our public access web site. As our findings from individual cases are progressively added to the database and uploaded onto the website we hope that this resource will gradually grow into a full and indispensable record of how public sector corruption and mismanagement is dealt with in the Eastern Cape.

Colm Allan is co-ordinator of the Public Sector Monitoring Unit at Rhodes University