IT IS instructive, when considering the "resignation" of South African Revenue Service (SARS) commissioner Oupa Magashula, to contrast the way the allegations against him have been handled with the disastrous attempt on the part of the previous government to avoid having to deal with the scandal that eventually saw former police chief Jackie Selebi jailed for corruption.
There are obvious differences but enough similarities for the comparison to be relevant and for the lessons to be clear. A zero tolerance approach to unethical behaviour on the part of those who are appointed to positions of authority in the state is essential as a way of preventing corruption. It is also vital to the credibility of the affected institution that such matters be dealt with transparently and that the consequences encourage accountability in future.
It is now a matter of record that former president Thabo Mbeki either could not bring himself to believe that his appointee and friend could be bent, or preferred to ignore the possibility in the hope that his behaviour could be dealt with quietly. Either way, Selebi was protected politically and allowed to gain the impression that he could behave with impunity. The upshot was a sordid corruption scandal that severely undermined the South African Police Service’s credibility and limits its effectiveness as a crime-fighting force to this day.
By contrast, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s prompt response to allegations in the media that Mr Magashula had an inappropriate relationship with convicted drug dealer Timothy Marimuthu, and the zero tolerance approach when it became apparent that the commissioner was not being honest with the commission of inquiry set up to probe the matter, should help avoid long-term damage to SARS.
As a former SARS commissioner himself, and the man who is largely credited with the service’s hard-won reputation for efficiency, integrity and user-friendliness, Mr Gordhan was undoubtedly highly motivated to prevent this all from unravelling. He is also in a better position than anyone else to understand how easily this can occur, and how hard it is to plug the holes once the dam wall is breached.
Mr Magashula has been praised by the African National Congress for placing "the reputation and integrity of SARS and government broadly ahead of his own deployment interests", and it is possible that he genuinely regrets his indiscretion and accepts that it compromised an important institution of state. But before our sympathy flows too strongly, it should be borne in mind that he was left with little choice — resigning may in fact have been the easy option given the commission’s recommendation that disciplinary action be instituted against him.
Mr Gordhan will now be able to appoint a new commissioner, having pre-empted what might otherwise have turned into a criminal act and political scandal to rival that of Selebi and the crimes that were committed as a result of his relationship with his "friend, finish and klaar", Glenn Agliotti. Most important, Mr Gordhan has sent a clear message that there will be no compromises on such matters in institutions that fall under him. His Cabinet colleagues — Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi in particular — are unlikely to be shamed into emulating his stance, but the stark contrast in the way controversies such as the expenditure of vast amounts of public money on President Jacob Zuma’s rural retreat at Nkandla have been handled will not go unnoticed by the public at large.
Meanwhile, the ethics review Mr Gordhan has commissioned from SARS’s audit committee, and the invitation to the public for input on the ethical standards that should be expected from SARS officials for incorporation into a code of conduct, is surely an idea whose time has come. The initiative should be broadened to include the government as a whole.