For the longest time, it appeared that the maximum punishment for the adverse audit opinions expressed by the Auditor-General on government departments, and entities, was to be invited to the Standing Committee On Public Accounts (SCOPA) to be berated by the multiparty members of the committee chaired by Honourable Themba Godi of the APC.
For almost as long a time, I have held a stupid view that, if the ANC were serious about fighting corruption, the Auditor-General would be given a hybrid of superpowers that would combine some of the powers that used to belong to the Scorpions, with those that seem to belong to traffic officers.
A person who is caught speeding is convicted and given a sentence by the traffic officer instantly, on the spot. The offender either has to pay the fine as per the conviction or risk jail time, unless they have the wherewithal to go prove their innocence in court. In traffic offences, one is guilty until proven innocent. It also does not excuse a speeding offender that he is the one caught while others speeding faster than him were not caught.
I think the Auditor-General Force should get the top end Volkswagen Golf similar to the ones that belonged to the Scorpions. They should then descend on the headquarters of the Department of This Thing, That One and the Other (DTTTOO) speeding with blue lights, signifying the urgency of fighting corruption.
They should jump out of their cars with small guns and rifles, dangling handcuffs on their uniform, accompanied by trained police dogs that can sniff out corruption. Get to the main boardroom, flip out a laptop and project the department’s bank statement on the wall using a projector, if it works, at least on that day.
As they randomly pick a transaction line on the bank statement, the accounting officer should quickly produce the documentation from his electronic searchable filing cloud database of documents (whose technology has been in existence for over 15 years but somehow is not used in government, and unlikely to be used within the next 10 years). If he fails to find the document, the Director-General would be handcuffed during the meeting and taken to Kgosi Mampuru Correctional Centre to start serving his jail term.
The meeting would resume the following day at Kgosi Mampuru Correctional Centre with the Director-General now wearing an orange uniform, trying to explain why the documents for the said transaction could not be found.
On weekends, when further auditing by the Auditor-General is not happening, his lawyers can visit him in prison so he can instruct them to go to court to prove his innocence so he can be released, or, alternatively, he pays back the amount equal to the transaction(s) of the missing documents.
For some reasons, my lawyer friends told me this cannot happen because of the administration of justice, fairness and an audi alteram partem (yeah, me neither). I do not know why those matters are suddenly important when dealing with a missing R32 million of public funds, but they are not so important when a municipal traffic officer fines you for not finding a parking in a municipal road that was zoned by the municipality to have a 12 floor skyscraper that services 1000 people per day but with a parking for only 11 people.
Hence it was with gleeful excitement that I witnessed the National Assembly, one of two houses of Parliament, pass the Public Audit Amendment Bill on Tuesday, 29 May 2018.
The Public Audit Amendment Bill does not entirely cover the scenario I desire that I just narrated. But it introduces a variant of the desirable scenario in two major ways.
Firstly, it empowers the Auditor-General to refer all material irregularities detected during an audit to the relevant public institutions such as the Hawks, the South African Police Service (SAPS), the Public Protector, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and others for further investigation. In turn, these public institutions are expected to take appropriate action against all parties found guilty of financial misconduct.
Secondly, the Bill empowers the AGSA to issue a certificate of debt against all accounting officers who are found to have acted contrary to the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) and other relevant legislation. The AG will then report all instances of certificates of debt issued to the Speaker of the National Assembly on an annual basis in order to allow parliament to demand accountability in terms of progress with regard to repayment.
But in the current version of the Bill, the AG, can only issue the certificate of debt to the DG for him to payback the money, after;
- Following up with the DG whether he has done something about the findings in the audit report;
- If the DG has not done anything significant, the AG gives him an opportunity to make written representations;
- After the written representations, the AG gives the DG an opportunity to make oral representations to an advisory structure setup for this purpose;
- Then based on the recommendations of the advisory structure, only then can the AG issue a certificate of debt for the DG to pay back the money from his salary.
It takes long enough but it appears my lawyer friends were right about the audi alteram partem, and this is meant to cater for that, though it delays accountability. Slowly, the my desired Auditor General Force will emerge.
The long process compensates for one reservation I have with the Bill. It does not make an effort to distinguish between corruption (deliberate action of one’s benefit) and genuine errors of judgement by a competent manager. In the real world, even the most competent of managers may not always make 100% correct decisions 100% of the time. Even outliers may not achieve that utopia.
The Bill is still a few months from becoming the law, as it still has to go to the second, upper house, of parliament, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). Once adopted there, the President will sign it into law.
One of the potential unintended consequences of this bill, once it becomes law, is that it might significantly increase austerity on the misuse of public funds, as some of the thieves would begin to steal sparingly, to hedge for that in case they are caught, they can afford the amount they have to pay back.
So over and above dissuading some thieves from corruption, the persistent thieves would be more cautious.
The ANC should be commended for this bill, together with all the opposition parties, as all political parties in parliament supported the Public Audit Amendment Bill.
The Bill is in line with ANC 53rd National Conference, that amongst others resolved that, “A critical objective for the next five years is to improve the quality of the social wage, by rolling back corruption, inefficiency and waste in the public service, improving the productivity of public servants and ensuring much tighter accountability, with firm consequences where there is a failure to deliver services.”
The Public Audit Amendment Bill may not surgical remove the cancer of corruption as my desired Auditor-General Force would have, but it should be effective chemotherapy in “rolling back corruption.”