Does President Jacob Zuma deserve the praise heaped on him for “cracking down” on corruption last week?
His announcement of an investigation of seven state departments by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) comes at a time when South Africans are desperate for action against corrupt politicians, government employees and people in business.
The demise of the Scorpions and the slow start made by the police’s Hawks led to a drop in graft probes, confirmed by a recent study the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The conviction of former police chief Jackie Selebi for taking bribes and Zuma’s appointment of the SIU have seemingly reignited the feeling that something is being done.
But what, exactly, can the SIU do to stop the rot?
It is significant that Zuma chose the SIU and not the Hawks to clean up the mess in the departments of public works, arts and culture, human settlements, South African Police Service, Gauteng health, Eastern Cape education and at the South African Social Security Agency.
Established in 1996 by former president Nelson Mandela to clean up maladministration in the Eastern Cape, the SIU’s first head was Judge Willem Heath.
Willie Hofmeyr, a former ANC-politician-turned-crime fighter, who is also heading the National Prosecuting Authority’s Asset Forfeiture Unit, succeeded him.
Essentially the SIU operates like a permanent judicial commission of inquiry with solid forensic capabilities. But the big difference between the SIU and the Hawks is that the SIU does not have the power to arrest.
Unlike the Hawks, or the former Scorpions, the SIU cannot arrest and criminally prosecute wrongdoers. Its main function is to institute civil legal action against individuals or companies found to have committed fraud.
In cases in which criminal conduct has been discovered, the SIU hands over a report to the National Prosecuting Authority or the police to investigate further and institute criminal proceedings.
Since its inception, the SIU has investigated mainly fraud in the social development and housing departments. With the use of sophisticated technology, the unit has been able to trace public servants who have been enriching themselves from social-grants money or awarding houses to friends and family.
On its own website, the SIU confirms focusing mainly on “small and medium-sized corruption where it is an endemic problem and impacts on service delivery”.
This is a noble approach and the SIU deserves kudos for its successes over the years. But the question is: is the SIU ready to take over the baton from the Scorpions with regard to the investigation and prosecution of high-profile cases?
Probing the SAPS and the Gauteng health department will likely lead the SIU to high office, which will require firm steps by a law-enforcement agency, not mere civil action.
A recent high-profile probe by the SIU into tender fraud in the correctional services department doesn’t bode well for the unit’s ability to get its cases to court.
In 2007 the unit started probing the relationship between the department and the facilities management company, Bosasa.
In September last year, the SIU handed over its report to Correctional Services Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.
In November, Hofmeyr briefed Parliament on his unit’s findings, confirming that it was able to uncover fraud and corruption in the awarding of tenders to Bosasa.
Mapisa-Nqakula has since given her report to the NPA, which has referred it to the police for further investigation.
More than three years after the SIU started probing no civil or criminal proceedings have been instituted.
Ultimately, it is not up to the SIU to decide whether the individuals or entities it catches out will face the music.
An even more lasting legacy would be for Zuma to give it such powers.
This article was produced by amaBhungane, investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to enhance capacity for investigative journalism in the public interest. www.amabhungane.co.za.