As a key official in the finance department, she had refused to be party to the approval of a tender that, in her view, flouted the principles of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA). Had she gone ahead and approved it, she believed her reputation would be subject to trial by fire in the media and, eventually, the courts of our land, and that none of the seniors who tried to push her to participate would have stood by her.
She would not have been the first one to face such a predicament. Many South Africans have been left sitting at home – those not lucky enough to score lucrative golden handshakes in exchange for their silence – poorer or unable to find other employment because being fired left them untouchable. It doesn’t help that they were fired for refusing to do wrong.
Senzile’s story and several others share a common thread; a thread that many dare not speak openly about, because it can lead to danger. In Kwazulu-Natal, people easily lose their lives over political motives. If they open their mouths, they may risk exposing the wrong politicians or, perhaps in some cases, meticulously woven party financing tricks that break the laws of our land.
In his recent book, How to Steal a City, former government official Crispian Olver gives a chilling account of “sailing close to the wind” as he penetrated the ANC’s fundraising operation in order to better understand the party and his political home.
Olver had been appointed by then-finance minister Pravin Gordhan to lead the clean-up of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality ahead of the 2016 local government elections.
It turned out some of the businesses from which the team he worked with were seeking to raise funds were under investigation for peddling influence. It was inevitable that the two roles he played – funraising and fixing – would, at some point, collide directly.
He describes a meeting he had with local businessmen – and potential donors – as follows:
“Ravi Naidoo was forthright, even persistent. I could see he easily got what he wanted… Without much introduction, Naidoo explained to me that he wanted to make a substantial donation to the ANC, but Masakeni [his business] was facing a serious cash-flow crunch.
“Contracts with the Metro took inordinately long to finalise, he continued, and the metro was a slow payer. Masakeni also had to disburse large ‘retention fees’ on their contracts, which were held by the city as a guarantee against performance.”
The description continues: “He wanted to have these retention fees released in exchange for bank guarantees. The transaction he offered was simple: release the retention fees, and he would make a donation. Such an open request to exert influence for money took me by surprise. I was uncomfortable an unsure how to respond. Didn’t this contradict the principles we had only recently agreed on [in the Regional Task Team] fundraising committee?”
To give Naidoo what he wanted, Olver had to get the municipality’s Chief Finance Officer, Trevor Harper, involved, as he would have to authorise the deal.
Olver writes after this that “Trevor was willing to look into the retention fees, as well as earlier payment on some invoices, in exchange for a discount.
“He indicated that this was standard practice, but I was still uneasy. I felt that we were sailing quite close to the wind, not least” – and this is the crunch – “I had involved metro officials in facilitating fundraising for the ANC, and even though they seemed familiar with this sort of arrangement, the influence we were peddling was alarmingly close to the dodgy transactions I had been investigating…”
Often, when such cases go public, it is the senior officials who walk away with millions in golden handshakes. They’ll go off and sit at home or go on holiday while the storm dies down, before they get their next deployment. Some are even known to have mastered the age-old art of shedding tears in front of media cameras, in order to appear seriously heartbroken and ashamed by their ‘innocently carried out’ activities.
Now, imagine for a minute what happens in cases where the senior, often politically connected deployee, agrees to play the game only to have a ‘politically naïve’ middle manager – with both eyes on the PFMA and totally unaware of the political machinations at play – refusing to attach his or her signature to the thick pile of documents placed before them, without being given the time to read through these first. What do you think happens to such government officials?
These are probably the people whose files choke the CCMA system in their sheer volume. Cases may be lost for lack of funds, if the CCMA sends them to the Labour Court; or dropped following intimidation. They are the silent whistle blowers who should be financially supported and legally protected from harm, for without them a lot of information that has found itself in the hands of investigative journalists and the public in recent times would not have seen the light of day.
So, could it be that for as long as it remains opaque, political party funding drives corruption by government officials, who find themselves forced to choose between serving the interests of all South Africans – as required by law – and looking the other way, ending up paying with their personal reputations and hard-earned careers?
Who stands to pay the price if the status quo is left to continue?