It is not their time to eat: We must stop the plunder of the Covid-19 fiscal package

Date: Jul 7, 2021 | News

Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic (Designate) and former Executive Dean: Faculty of Law, University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article published in The Daily Maverick, 05 July 2021.

The R500-billion Covid-19 relief resources attracted all sorts of scavengers, indefatigable in their mission to lay their paws and teeth on easy money and satisfy their appetite for the finer things in life. When it comes to social protection programmes, the self-interested have helped themselves to healthy chunks of the Covid-19 fiscal package.

Not so long ago, I gave a talk at a confab on corruption at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. Among many important speakers, there was the erstwhile dynamic and articulate auditor-general of Ghana. He shared an anecdote about a young Ghanaian civil servant who, shortly after independence, identified some shady financial transactions in one government office. The eagle-eyed civil servant duly brought his unsavoury discovery to the attention of his superiors. Instead of praise and a raise, he was asked to loosen up because President Kwame Nkrumah had slain a huge beast and, as a result, there was enough for everyone.

The more I reminisce about the story, the more I think that President Cyril Ramaphosa knew that the R500-billion Covid-19 fiscal package he announced would sound like he had brought down a big beast for some unscrupulous “fellow South Africans” to feast on. He duly issued a stern warning during one of the early “family meetings” on Covid-19 which took place on 23 March 2020.

“I want to make it clear,” Ramaphosa warned, “that we expect all South Africans to act in the interest of the South African nation and not in their own selfish interests. We will therefore act very strongly against any attempts at corruption and profiteering from this crisis. I have directed that special units of the NPA be put together to act immediately and arrest those against whom we find evidence of corruption. We will work with the judiciary to expedite cases against implicated persons and make sure the guilty go to jail.”

The stealing of the Covid-19 relief resources had been foretold by the president. The R500-billion “beast” he has slaughtered, like a carcass of a magnificent tusker in the Kruger National Park, attracted all sorts of scavengers. They are indefatigable in their mission to lay their filthy paws and teeth on what seems to be easy money and satisfy their insatiable appetite for the finer things in life. Judging by the news and the auditor-general’s reports – particularly when it comes to social protection programmes – the self-interested have helped themselves to healthy chunks of the Covid-19 fiscal package.

Staying with the social protection programmes, the reported cases of fraudulent and corrupt activities in respect of Covid-19 benefits such as the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Covid-19 grant and Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) benefit are appalling.

In brief, the relief benefits in some instances ended in the wrong and undeserving hands. Such hands include those of certain unscrupulous members of the South African National Defence Force, civil servants, employees of the South African Post Office, prisoners and ghost beneficiaries. This is embarrassing, especially for a social protection outfit such as the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) which is supposed to be “paying the right social grant, to the right person, the right time and place. Njalo!”

How did the social protection institutions find themselves dishing up the helpings of President Ramaphosa’s “beast” to the wrong recipients? In an attempt to answer the aforementioned question, the taxpayers and upright members of society need to be brutally honest with themselves. Social protection benefits have since their inception been and will continue to be seen as low-hanging fruit to be plucked at will by certain individuals with a track record in avarice. This is irrespective of the reasons, be it greed or destitution, for such behaviour.

The scourge of corruption and fraud is well known to the post-apartheid South African social protection institutions. There is the problem of erroneously paid benefits that cannot and should not be disregarded. Several root causes such as inefficient procedures and the lack of a uniform and integrated social protection system were somehow voiced in the White Paper for Social Welfare of August 1997, among other policy documents.

In the fullness of time, not all the monies lost will be recouped nor soon enough. In some instances, the collection costs may exceed the value of the money lost to the corrupt and fraudsters. This sad reality renders the endeavours to collect certain unduly paid benefits a fool’s errand. Despite that, every effort must be made and within reason to recover as much collectable money as possible.

It is a fact that despite the apparent surge of error, corruption and fraud in the handling of the Covid-19 social relief benefits, the administration of social protection programmes has improved significantly. However, the currently untenable situation in respect of the Covid-19 relief benefits points to some gaps and challenges in the system that require attention.

There is a Sepedi saying that “monna o hlalefela lebadin” (loosely translated, a man learns from his scars). In other words, a person should learn from his or her mistakes or even bad experiences. In isiZulu it is said “ukubona kanye ukubona Kabili”. This means seeing once is equivalent to seeing twice. The question is, have our social protection institutions and those who manage them learnt from their missteps in the handling of the benefits?

Well, if the media reports are anything to go by, it seems that those who preside over these organisations would like us to believe they were caught napping in some respects and once bitten, twice shy. For instance, a lot of noise is being made about reclaiming erroneously paid TERS and SRD benefits. This is good, but is it enough? All things considered, these talks should be matched against actions (eg, the steps to recover the money) and outcomes (eg, recovered money and steps taken against the culprits).

In the fullness of time, not all the monies lost will be recouped nor soon enough. In some instances, the collection costs may exceed the value of the money lost to the corrupt and fraudsters. This sad reality renders the endeavours to collect certain unduly paid benefits a fool’s errand. Despite that, every effort must be made and within reason to recover as much collectable money as possible.

As important as the recovery of the misappropriated money may be, that is and should not be the beginning and end of the matter. South Africans deserve good answers from institutions such as Sassa and the UIF on the following key questions.

First, what are the social protection institutions’ plans to prevent history from repeating itself? Second, in the worst-case scenario, how do they intend to minimise the scale of the losses due to the errors and thievery as these are certainly here to stay? As torturous as these questions may be, they and their answers are an important aspect of learning from the Covid-19 relief package misadventures perspective.

In reality, a few of those who oversee the social protection programmes have been less vocal about how to prevent a repeat of the Covid-19 losses. There are exceptions. Sassa intends to stop the rot by tapping into the database of government entities when determining eligibility for social grants. Such databases include those of the Unemployment Insurance Fund, the Government Employees’ Pension Fund and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

That’s well and good, but the proposal sounds like an ad hoc measure. What is required is something permanent and the answer is hiding in plain sight.

The Committee of Inquiry into a Comprehensive System of Social Security for South Africa, colloquially known as the Taylor Committee, called as long ago as 2002 for the development of integrated social protection and administrative framework. Such a framework was to be anchored on Sassa. The committee, in its report, envisaged that Sassa would be entrusted with the overall responsibility of coordinating and administering the South African social protection system. Advantages flowing from this approach include significantly improved efficiency, effectiveness and service delivery, reduced costs of managing the overall social protection system and an integrated system that will foster greater collaboration. This includes the linking of systems between government departments engaged directly or indirectly in the provision of social protection in the country. It is by all accounts a perfect recipe for fewer errors, fraud and corruption in the system.

While mulling over the long-overdue setting of Sassa as a one-stop shop for social protection in South Africa, the relevant cluster of ministers should toil hard towards ensuring that those who benefited unduly as well as those who (un)wittingly enabled the thieving are brought to book and expeditiously. This will add clout to President Ramaphosa’s warning. After all, the proverbial beast that he slew is for the intended beneficiaries and not the undeserving ravenous scavengers.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

prof letlhokwa george mpedi
Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi

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