Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), have weighed in on the controversy around Covid-19 corruption in South Africa, particularly cases involving person protective equipment (PPE) intended for health workers.
Madonsela, who was speaking during an Ahmed Kathrada Foundation C19 Anti-corruption Campaign Online Rally address on Friday night, raised concerns that Covid-19 corruption may have led to the death of frontline health workers in the country due to substandard PPE or delays in delivery to health facilities.
Read: SIU investigating R5bn worth of Covid-19 tenders
Her sentiments were echoed by the WHO director-general during a separate Covid-19 briefing on Friday.
Ghebreyesus went further, saying that if health workers’ lives were lost due to corruption, it equated to murder. His comments have effectively thrown the scandal into the world spotlight.
‘It’s actually murder’
“Any level … or type of corruption is unacceptable. However, corruption related to PPE lifesaving, for me it’s actually murder; because if health workers work without PPE, we’re risking their lives,” said Ghebreyesus.
“And that also risks the lives of the people they serve.”
Ghebreyesus was responding to a question following the WHO’s online update and media conference on the global pandemic.
“It’s criminal and it’s murder, and it has to stop if it’s happening anywhere,” he warned.
Trust has been lost
Madonsela said that while South Africa has lost money, the country had “probably lost some of our frontline workers” as well as trust.
“Trust was already in the emergency room in this democracy. When we talked about the new dawn, that was a period when that trust was being renewed. Now we’re back in the emergency room that makes our democracy fragile.
“Corruption is a threat to all of us,” she added. “Corruption threatens democracy, justice, the rule of law, peace. The outcomes of corruption are death, hunger and anger and democratic fragility.”
She said the fact that emergency procurement around Covid-19 was necessary could not be blamed for the corruption that has now come to light.
“The law is clear … Nothing in emergency procurement allows overcharging, over-billing, false billing, cronyism, nepotism and the violation of conflict of interest,” she said.
“Nothing in emergency procurement allows state functionaries to leave tried-and-tested service providers in their system and go for fly-by-night tenderpreneurs or covidprenuers,” she added.
Madonsela said the greatest risk is shoddy work, with these companies not having the structure that could replace products if there were any issues.
“These companies are probably also not party to regulatory bodies that assure quality assurance in their sectors. I do not understand why this was done, because in hospitals, PPEs in every country are procured from specific companies,” she noted.
Treasury seeks to tighten PPE procurement
Ramaphosa’s ousted spokeswoman regrets PPE contract
“What saddens me is that other countries used this opportunity to foster industries in their own country.… To have people who procure cheap products from China and then sell to the state at exorbitant extent is just bewildering to me,” she added.
Madonsela, who is now a law professor at Stellenbosch University, said civil society organisations had warned of corruption emanating from Covid-19 tenders as early as April this year.
This led to the law trust, which she heads at the university, setting up the Social Justice and Covid-19 Policy and Relief Monitoring Alliance (Scopra).
“As Scopra, we foresaw trouble. We knew that there was going to be theft, there was going to be corruption [and] ineptitude.… But nothing prepared us for the emerging picture.
“Nothing could have prepared us for the alleged extent of cruelty and greed.
“We warned government,” said Madonsela.
“We sent them a statement on April 28, having constituted ourselves as Scopra. We asked the president, we asked the minister of Cogta [Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs] to ensure that there was transparency in all Covid-19 procurement,” she pointed out.
Transparency isn’t difficult
“[We asked] that all of these tenders could be put on the internet, for everyone to know what had been procured, from who and at what cost. We demanded accountability. But above everything else, we asked the government more than three times to comply with the Disaster Management Act,” Madonsela added.
She said this meant government also had to include civil society in a more cooperative manner in dealing with Covid-19 transparently.
Instead, government set up the National Covid-19 Command Council (NCCC), which is made up only of ministers and senior government officials.
“What saddens me is that everyone now blames the president. Yes of course, he is the captain, but he allowed himself to be barricaded by his own ministers.”
“He didn’t choose the vehicle. He was advised by his ministers, who moved him away from the Disaster Management Act and created a structure that mostly allows one party to manage this very crucial time of [the country’s] management,” said Madonsela.
“I think the president will do himself a favour if he returns to the Disaster Management Act framework and therefore take[s] away the monopoly from his colleagues,” she added, noting that this would allow opposition parties and civil society to be part of the process.
* South African civil society organisations, including the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, are set to begin nationwide protests against Covid-19 corruption this week through online events and small demonstrations, in line with pandemic-related social distancing requirements.