How I long for the Zuma days when we had ‘honest looters’

My very first editor often used to say, “Aim low and avoid disappointment”.

I thought this to be wonderfully cynical and immediately made it part of my repertoire.

Over the years, however, I came to understand that he was not a cynic in the true nature our profession cultivates.

Rather, he was quite pragmatic: It came down to expectation management.

If you manage your expectations in a realistic fashion, you are better able to deal with the challenges as they are presented and save yourself a bit of heartache and frustration along the way. (It still sounds cynical, I know).

The response to the coronavirus pandemic in South Africa – and more specifically the president’s address this week – made me think of that old saying once more.

It has been heartbreaking to see the economy ravaged by the lockdown and the often-nonsensical regulations decreed upon us by a small elite.

However, the main reason for the extreme disappointment I have felt is really all my own fault. When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the lockdown and State of Disaster in March, many of us believed that he and the technocrats within his Cabinet and government could lead us through this disaster.

In fact, some of them such as the stoic and impressive Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, have been absolutely inspirational.

Nonetheless, they are in the minority. By far.

As soon as the emergency funding and relief measures were announced, the looting machinery sprang into action. We started hearing about dodgy water tanker tenders. We started hearing about hugely inflated PPE products as the shortages hit. The list goes on.

R500 billion – much of which can largely be spent without the onerous procurement rules and regulations (which often makes no difference in any case) – is just too grand a prize to let pass by.

The fact that a large chunk of this money is being borrowed (which will take many, many years to repay), makes no difference to the looters. Obviously. Nothing stopped them when the fiscus was being robbed down to almost the last cent during our “lost decade”.

So, when the President announced a raft of new measures to tackle corruption and mismanagement of the special relief measures put in place, I was once again disappointed.

Disappointed that people could stoop so low during this time of crisis. Disappointed that I had “let my guard down” following years of plundering and looting.

During Number One’s reign, we got used to the looting. We came to expect it. At least it was an honest transaction as far as I was concerned: I expected it and nothing less.

The fact of the matter is that not much has changed under the new leadership. When some parts of the old patronage network were dismantled, a new network sprang up in its place.

In many instances however, it has simply been business as usual. Now made easier during a pandemic. Those systems and procedures have been in place for some time and the machine has been well-oiled to make the most out of fiscal expenditure.

Not a single high profile crook has had his or her day in court. The Zondo Commission has spent countless hours hearing testimonies on the taxpayer’s dime. The Gupta leaks laid bare an entire criminal underworld, yet… nothing.

The prosecuting authorities have asked us time and time again to be patient as they create ‘bulletproof’ cases.

Now, Ramaphosa has centralised a significant amount of law enforcement and intelligence power into the newly established “collaborative and coordinating centre”.

The purpose of this centre is to streamline the work of nine different entities “to strengthen the collective efforts among law enforcement agencies so as to prevent, detect, investigate and prosecute Covid-related corruption”.

I’ll hold my breath until the prosecutions start in a few years’ time and some middle management crook takes the fall. I really, really hope that my cynicism is proven wrong.

In the meantime, I’ll aim low and avoid disappointment.

Hendri Pelser is the acting Digital editor of The Citizen.

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