The vultures are circling the Covid-19 procurement trough: We must muzzle their beaks

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Daily Maverick

If we thought the era of corruption institutionalised during the Zuma years was over, we were wrong. The Covid-19 crisis and the scramble by corrupt vultures to feed on the spoils has made that clear.

Corruption may have been institutionalised during the dark-shadow years of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, but it existed long before, in the hardwiring and heartbeat of the apartheid regime as well as during the dawn and construction of South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

We hoped a new dawn had arrived with the election of Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, but we have found there are far too many interwoven into the now-failing developmental state who are benefiting from the procurement of goods and services. The new dawn promised to the republic has been frustrated by paralysis, decay and continued frustration with the long-overdue reform and structural restructuring — delayed for the sake of political allegiance and deal-making.

The fault lines grow ever deeper in South Africa. Despair and suffering continue to extend far beyond a safety net that continues to be eroded and torn down by those entrusted to protect and serve the country and its citizens.

South Africans have for too long suffered under the weight of incompetence, disinterest and even worse self-interest, malfeasance and greed of those more interested in feeding at the trough than serving the people. The failures by the ANC as the governing party continue to plague the country and are highlighted in news about possible corruption relating to Covid-19 goods and services.

South Africans are forced to contend with continuous news cycles filled with greed and stealing, not only from state coffers, but from those in need of resources or services they are entitled to and badly need. South Africa is faltering in building on initial sound work as we try to contend with the impact of Covid-19.

Poorly crafted statements are issued by implicated parties, half-baked mea culpa interviews are committed to but the implicated simply carry on doing business with the government as the news cycle shifts.

South Africa has for far too long had a love affair with its own notion of exceptionalism. Exceptionalism and triumphalism have encouraged expediency and the rush to claim the prize before any hard work has been done.

The Ramaphosa administration will need to do a lot more than simply placing its chief spokesperson on a leave of absence — such as introducing stringent measures to ensure anyone with any affiliation or affinity to anyone in the state is prevented from doing work with the government. In fact, such behaviour should be criminalised to ensure we do not rely on subjective judgments of the problematic trough-seekers themselves. We cannot rely on the good intentions of trough-seekers; we need to police and regulate the mechanisms whereby resources are bled at the expense of the public purse.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted shameless irregularities in the spending of hundreds of millions of rands in government procurement for personal protective equipment and other interventions.

South Africans have been led to believe that those entrusted to serve will be guided to do the right thing and conduct themselves in a way that serves the republic. The global crisis and pandemic should have focused the minds of those entrusted to serve, but instead, we have been faced with either bad judgment or wilful disregard for the country in the pursuit of self-interest.

The challenge is that the vultures are not only circling goods required for Covid-19 mitigation and items such as personal protective equipment, but are creating troughs leveraged off the services and consulting required during this unprecedented time.

We have seen this feeding frenzy before, during the shadow state of Zuma, when large corporates, consultancies and multinationals ensured they were richly rewarded for their dirty work behind the gloss and sheen of presentation slide-packs and soundbites.

Now is not the time for incremental change or patience, but rather immediate and urgent structural change to the way South Africa functions. South Africans cannot rely on the notion that now is a different time and the vultures will shift from their original philosophy. Now is not the time for wishful thinking, but rather a clear plan that confronts the fact that South Africa was flailing long before Covid-19 arrived on our shores.

Our institutional makeup and muscle have been depleted, and in many parts eroded, in order to support the trough-seekers and vultures. Our developmental state has been redirected to serve the interests of those who are able to hold political relevance and sway, while serving the country and its citizens have long been forgotten.

South Africans require real change – not change that is packaged in the form of soundbites, infographics or long-winded speeches. Change that ensures our needs and interests are met, that we create a culture of service that supports the dignity of ordinary South Africans and residents. Change that is responsive and ensures that poverty, unemployment and inequality are targeted and reduced with focus, compassion and purpose.

The late US Congressman John Lewis in 1963 urged his compatriots to “get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete”.

Like that generation, we too must continue to stay in the streets, embark on activism that must be ignited in the same way black consciousness was by the late Bantu Stephen Biko during the 1960s and 1970s. We must keep that fight and revolution alive until the efforts of the 1970s are in fact complete.

Now is not the time for us to set our sights low, but rather to demand much more from each other to ensure we disregard calls for patience or incremental change and instead embrace the possibility that real change must serve the people of this country and not those buffoons who continue to be focused only on the shelf life of the trough and their own greed. DM

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