Auditor-general now given teeth

Fifty-two years ago Zikhali and MamQwathi would obviously not have known that they had given birth to a son who was going to take charge of guarding a nation’s public money.
Perhaps using nomenclature as the main criterion, they could not have done better than choosing “Thembekile”.
The Xhosa name means “trustworthy” and it’s the first name they gave SA’s auditor-general.
A gruelling five years into his job, Thembekile “Kimi” Makwethu stands poised to receive additional powers that will allow his office to go after thieves, gangsters, administrators and politicians who pilfer and waste billions of taxpayers’ money every year.
Until this week, all the poor fellow could do, year in and year out, was point out the wrongs, recommend corrective action and hope for the best.
This while his staff was increasingly learning that even merely pointing out the wrongs at times carried with it harassment, kidnappings, even death.
He heads the only institution that, by law, has to audit and report on how the government is spending the SA taxpayers’ money.
Yet day in and day out, it has to deal with government departments, public entities, municipalities and public institutions that simply don’t care, and who have consistently shown a blatant disregard for financial controls and the advice of his office.
And with no consequences whatsoever for the wrongdoers, the culprits would simply laugh off the auditor-general’s findings and recommendations, only to offend again, and again, and again.
Oh for the people who, in terms of our constitution, are supposed to stop the turmoil.
Both the cabinet and parliament have been oblivious to their respective roles and responsibilities, and have for more than 20 years now allowed the situation to get worse.
The legislature has hardly ever held the executive to account and has been seen in recent years with some members of the cabinet including the president, being the ones enabling massive looting of state resources.
On Wednesday Makwethu released, once again, another disturbing audit report.
The report showed that clean audits of the country’s national and provincial government departments have dropped by 23%, with irregular expenditure ballooning to a whopping R51bn.
The regression means that more and more departments are spending public money fruitlessly and wastefully.
Or simply put, our hard-earned tax is not buying the most and best it could buy, and with Sars’s once admirable efficiency eroded, there is less money to pay for our public health system, the education of our children, and for taking care of our old, sick and infirm.
Makwethu’s previous report, in May, focusing on the financial state of the country’s municipalities, was no less flattering.
It also showed a reversal of audit outcomes, with their level of non-compliance with proper financial controls at its highest in five years.
Most municipalities had managed the funds they were allocated so badly, they were barely going concerns.
They were, therefore, not able to pay their billions of rands of debt to electricity utility Eskom and the water boards.
At times, they were unable to pay the salaries of their employees. Needless to say, service delivery also suffered.
There, too, there was a lack of decisive leadership to hold municipalities accountable for their financial failings, Makwethu noted at the time.
Like the public protector and similar others, Makwethu must be impartial, and has to exercise his powers and perform his functions without fear, favour or prejudice.
He has stuck to his end of the bargain, but others haven’t.
Not only must he audit and report on the financial management in the public sector, he also has to do so in a manner that will enable parliamentarians to call everyone – from the president, to his cabinet ministers, MECs, mayors and municipal managers, CEOs of state entities and other officials – all of them to account for how they spend taxpayers’ money.
The politicians have habitually let him down.
The Public Audit Amendment Act, which was on Sunday signed by the president into law and was gazetted on Tuesday, gives Makwethu’s office substantial new powers to crack down on the irregular, wasteful and unauthorised expenditure of our money.
One of the public protector’s most potent weapons is the office’s ability to order binding remedial action, including the recovery of lost money.
Makwethu is now getting similar powers.
If a person entrusted with public funds doesn’t implement the AG’s remedial action, the office will now be able to issue a certificate to have the monies recovered from those responsible.
So, where before he would express an opinion and culprits would do nothing about it, there will now be consequences for the lack of action.
And remember, he can also refer cases to law enforcement agencies for further investigation.
Officials, don’t say you weren’t warned.
If your political principal leans on you to take wrong decisions, you have a weapon to fend them off, but one which also protects you.
But if you don’t use it, you are the one who will rot in jail and from whom money will have to be recovered.
While Makwethu can be trusted with ensuring the implementation of the new law as best and as far as he can – something he has done consistently in the five years he has been the auditor-general – the question is still whether the politicians (cabinet and parliament) will play their part this time.
If history is anything to go by, I have my doubts.
That we needed this new law is perhaps proof of the honourable members’ impotency.
And so, in Thembekile Makwethu we trust...

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