There is the saying that once beaten, twice shy. There is also the saying that the guilty are afraid. And these may very well be true with the management and disbursement of the Covid-19 Relief Fund. The purpose of this Fund I must state without flinching, is for a noble cause-to cushion as far as possible those who will be adversely affected by the emergence of the Coronavirus pandemic. There are many of the compatriots who even at the beginning of the funds being deposited in the bank accounts, have become the Fund’s undisputable beneficiaries. But when those who receive the Fund deposits, directly or indirectly on behalf of the beneficiaries are asked about how the Fund will be managed in terms of good governance, transparency and accountability, they run absolutely beserk. Looking at how public funds have been grossly mismanaged when there was no state of public emergency, it should go without saying that it is fair, reasonable and legitimate to be concerned about the Covid-19 Relief Fund under the current political climate.
I was struck by the body language and response of the Minister of Finance and Economic Development Hon Dr Thapelo Matsheka on 24 April 2020 when he was asked by a journalist during a television interview about the management of the Relief Fund. What seemed to be a harmless and routine question from the said journalist evoked what appeared to be the other side of the Minister. He was livid by saying that he had heard about the remarks or comments from members of the public with regards to Covid-19 Relief Fund by suggesting that however was uncomfortable with the safety of the funds they contributed should instead buy whatever is required for Coronavirus and submit the same. Individuals and private entities are contributing generously to the Covid-19 Relief Fund and are therefore entitled to know how the Fund will be managed. In fact, all stakeholders to the Fund should demand without fear of contradiction to be represented on the structure(s) that administer the Fund.
Covid-19 Relief Fund is susceptible to mismanagement, corruption, abuse by those who oversee its implementation. The biggest cover up will be the emergency nature of the pandemic where transparency, good corporate governance and accountability are substituted by the Emergency Powers of the State of Public Emergency. Jessica Tillipman, who is a law Professor and anti-corruption activist at the George Washington University says ‘Whenever there is a need for supplies and services quickly, the procurement system is at greater risk for corruption.’ Journalist Tammy Kufferman Thorp recently wrote an opinion piece titled ‘To defeat the Coronavirus, Stop Corruption’ in which she wrote that:
• ‘Pandemic seen by some as an opportunity to take advantage of the emergency to abuse their power for private gain
• Anti-corruption protections get waived or ignored, oversight becomes more lax and people take advantage of the situation
• Counterfeit goods bound to be on the increase with goods substandard thereby endangering the lives they are supposed to protect.’
With the Covid-19 Relief Fund created around the narrative of empathy to those directly or indirectly infected and affected by the pandemic, corrupt individuals on the surface want us to believe that the Relief Fund will be dispensed just for that. But truth be told, the corrupt will care less about the Fund helping those in need but themselves. In fact and with the glaring prospects of so many procurement requirements waived or ignored, it becomes a fertile ground for absolute corruption to take place. Government has on her own admission, conceded that the levels of corruption have reached catastrophic proportions with those corruption levels on a runaway trajectory probably than ever before. The recent example of the National Petroleum Fund scandal in which P 250 million or so of public funds was siphoned from under the nose of tight internal controls, is an indication that if such funds can be siphoned when there is no state of emergency, is there any chance that the Covid-19 Relief Fund can escape the attention of looters? Government is singing the old and tired song that no corruption will take place with respect to the Relief Fund under discussion. But apart from the tired old song, no other preventative mechanisms seem to be in place to secure the Fund from any type of abuse.
As a sign of the transformation agenda, I would have thought a Covid-19 Relief Fund management team constituted by all critical stakeholders like the business community, NGOs and government herself, would be in place to manage the Fund for good corporate governance, accountability and transparency. In any event, not only is government the sole contributor to the Fund but other stakeholders from across the societal divide. The business community’s deafening silence in not demanding an independent body to oversee the affairs of the Fund is concerning. It is fair, reasonable and legitimate to be concerned about Covid-19 Relief Fund.