South African president condemns COVID procurements corruption

By on 28/08/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Cyril Ramaphosa: "We need to make use of technology and artificial intelligence as a standard practice to tackle corruption across all of government." (Photo courtesy GCIS via GovernmentZA, flickr).

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned corruption in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party related to the procurement of COVID-19 equipment, and suggested addressing the problem through transparency, public engagement and digital tools.

In a letter sent to ANC members last weekend, president Ramaphosa said there is a “sense of anger and disillusionment at reports of corruption in our response to the coronavirus pandemic”.

In recent weeks, he noted, stories have circulated of contracts for PPE having been given to individuals associated with ANC leaders, and of public servants flouting the law in issuing tenders.

Ramaphosa suggested a raft of proposals to ensure transparency and accountability in procurement processes, including setting up a hotline through which members of the public could report suspected corruption. “We need to build on the ‘open tender’ processes employed in certain areas and make use of technology and artificial intelligence as a standard practice to tackle corruption across all of government,” he said, as reported by ITWeb.

In an opinion piece published in South Africa’s Sunday Times earlier this month, University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala – who is also the deputy chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution – suggested taking a similar approach. He cited China’s anti-corruption system Zero Trust, which uses AI to monitor and evaluate government officials’ lifestyles.

‘Lifestyle audits’

Ramaphosa reiterated in his recent letter that the South African government should conduct so-called ‘lifestyle audits’ – which assess the difference between staff income and lifestyle – of senior public servants and leaders of public entities. This follows a pledge made in his State of the Nation Address in February 2018, in which he said he had “no doubt that the lifestyle audits will contribute significantly in defeating corruption and the abuse of public resources for private gain”.

Such audits had already taken place in certain departments before the outbreak of the pandemic. For example, the country’s Public Works and Infrastructure minister, Patricia De Lille, announced in August 2019 that lifestyle audits would be carried out on all senior staff in her department.

As for the use of AI, international organisations such as the World Bank – which is working with Microsoft to “see the power and potential of artificial intelligence to digest huge and diverse data sets to detect patterns that hint at the possibility of corrupt behaviour” – and the World Economic Forum have advocated the use of data analytics and emerging technologies in tackling corruption. Carlos Santiso of the Development Bank of Latin America is also an advocate, and discussed the issues in a recent interview with GGF.

A global problem

Several governments have been accused of corruption or lack of transparency in buying medical supplies and equipment since the outbreak of the pandemic. In May, for example, Bolivia’s health minister was arrested on suspicion of corruption over over-priced ventilators, while earlier this week it was announced that three UK MPs have launched legal action against the British government over what they allege is a “persistent and unlawful” failure to disclose details of large PPE contracts.

According to the BMJ – formerly the British Medical Journal – the government has approved £15bn (US$11.4bn) for procuring PPE for public sector staff since the start of the pandemic. However, figures compiled by Tussell, which specialises in government purchasing data, show that details of only £2.68bn (US$2bn) of PPE spending have been made public. Multiple reports have emerged of PPE contracts being awarded to companies with no track record in the field – with many of the procured supplies not being delivered or failing to meet the required standards

The claimants – Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, and the Good Law Project – argue that the government is in breach of legal regulations requiring it to publish all contract award notices connected to the coronavirus pandemic within 30 days.

Jolyon Maugham, a barrister and director of the Good Law Project, a non-for-profit which uses law to protect the interests of the public, said, as reported by the BMJ: “Vast amounts of public money – billions and billions – are being rushed out the door. And yet what we can see is that the government is simply ignoring clear, mandatory, and unconditional legal obligations to publish details of its spending. It is deeply depressing that one needs to resort to the courts to ensure compliance with these obligations.”  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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