Guard our virus relief fund against corrupt crooks, please

Analysts and opposition parties have called for transparency in the way government’s Covid-19 relief fund is spent, against the backdrop of a history of corruption and mismanagement.

The announcement of a whopping R20 billion bailout for municipalities around the country to help them manage the Covid-19 pandemic has raised questions around whether these funds will be used as intended, or fall prey to corruption.

Advocate Paul Hoffman, of anticorruption pressure group Accountability Now, on Wednesday warned that it would be up to civil society and the country’s Chapter 9 institutions to ensure this money was not “diverted to the pockets of corrupt individuals in public administration”.

“We’ve seen that kleptocrats regard the pandemic as an opportunity to involve themselves in corrupt practices,” Hoffman said. “It’s going to be necessary for civil society organisations, the auditor-general and the criminal justice administration to be vigilant and ensure the new package is used as it is intended”.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday night unveiled “a massive social relief and economic support package of R500 billion” and said R20 billion would be made available to municipalities “for the provision of emergency water supply, increased sanitisation of public transport and facilities, and providing food and shelter for the homeless”.

“The nationwide lockdown has had a negative impact on the revenue of municipalities at a time when the demands on them are increasing,” he said.

The president on Tuesday acknowledged “reports of unscrupulous people abusing the distribution of food and other assistance for corrupt ends”.

And the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson for cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Haniff Hoosen, said on Wednesday the way in which municipal relief funds had been spent would have to be tabled at a council level as soon as possible after the state of disaster was lifted.

“And councillors – from opposition parties in particular – will have to be extra vigilant in ensuring this information is made available, given the history of mismanagement of funds,” he said.

“The best way to prevent corruption in the country is ongoing oversight,” Hoosen said.

“The unfortunate position we find ourselves in right now is that we can only deal with corruption after the fact – not beforehand – and by then, the damage has already been done.”

Hoffman said South Africa’s state anticorruption machinery was in disrepair.

“And it has been, ever since the Scorpions were disbanded,” he added.

Hoffman said there were mechanisms which allowed for preventative, rather than curative, action.

“Developed countries have an ‘office of the budget,’ which supervises how public money is spent,” he said. “But we don’t have that sort of machinery in South Africa”.

Hoffman said, however, that the public protector could potentially be called upon to act proactively, “where there is a suspicion public money intended for the purpose of pandemic relief is not being spent as it should be”.

Corruption Watch in a statement yesterday called for “increased transparency, vigilance and accountability”.

“Particularly against the backdrop of the extremely high levels of corruption that have characterised South African public life for so long,” the organisation said.

“Corruption Watch urges government to put measures in place to mitigate and reduce opportunities of corruption during this time and, also, to take swift action against those engaging in corrupt activities.”