Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THAT public service corruption, theft, fraud, extortion and forgery are costing the country hundreds of millions of rand a year is not news to taxpayers. A report by top law firm Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, published this week based on research by the Public Service Commission and parliamentary committee reports, put the total at almost R1bn in 2011-12.

While the numbers may differ slightly, the general thrust is the same as that of the reports that are issued every year by the office of the auditor-general. These, too, paint a picture of a culture of corruption that is becoming embedded in South African society — especially, but by no means exclusively, in the public service.

And, as in the Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs report, questions are inevitably raised each year about the government’s commitment to combating corruption and the effectiveness of its claims to be tightening up finance procedures, reducing waste and acting against guilty parties.

Where the law firm’s take on the issue differs somewhat from that of the state institution is that it is less constrained by administrative procedure, protocol and political pressure. It is therefore possible to go a little deeper into the reasons that South Africa’s corruption crisis is proving so difficult to resolve. In this respect, the latest report hits the nail on the head: there "appeared to be no meaningful consequences for financial misconduct", it said. Once again, the issue of accountability comes to the fore — not only are bent public employees able to act with impunity, but those to whom they are supposed to account are all too often able to avoid any political consequences too.

According to figures provided by the commission, although 88% of those alleged to be involved in 1,135 incidents of financial misconduct reported in 2009-10 were found guilty during disciplinary proceedings, only 19% of them were fired. More than 40% of guilty individuals got away with a warning. And when last did we hear of a mayor or MEC being removed from office for failing to deal effectively with corrupt officials?

The Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs report suggests the solution is a committed leadership, strict law enforcement, stronger risk management procedures and improved state investigative capacity, and it is worth analysing these in more detail. It can be argued that there is light at the end of the tunnel with regard to the latter two — while the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Special Investigating Unit appear to be struggling to stay on top of the burgeoning number of financial misconduct cases, the Asset Forfeiture Unit has achieved notable successes in some of the bigger cases involving large sums of money.

And Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has become increasingly outspoken on the issue, indicating in his budget speech this year that more resources would be provided for the battle against public sector corruption and wasteful expenditure. The wheels of justice certainly grind exceedingly slowly when it comes to the South African public service, but once in motion, they do sometimes grind to a conclusion, and there are concerted efforts in some quarters to speed them up.

The problem lies with the other two suggested solutions: a committed leadership and strict law enforcement, both of which come down to political will. The Jacob Zuma administration has repeatedly paid lip service to the battle against corruption, and even acted sporadically against offenders in the lower echelons of the public service, but it has repeatedly failed to act decisively to suspend or expel officials where this might be politically sensitive within the ruling party.

And it is clearly unhelpful when the example set by the president himself is one of using every trick in the book to avoid having to account for his own alleged involvement in the abuse of state funds.