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South Africa loses billions to negligence and corruption

October 15, 2011 |  5:00 am

South African President Jacob Zuma in New York in September
REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- A South African government minister reportedly spends the equivalent of nearly $70,000 of taxpayer money on a trip to Switzerland to visit his girlfriend in jail (facing drug charges), then tells the president that he was on official business.

Now that was embarrassing. (He's been on sick leave since February).

Then there was the minister and the police chief who were implicated in an unlawful deal to lease police buildings at inflated prices, which cost taxpayers more than $250 million.

But those incidents pale beside the sprawling, routine corruption and negligence in South African governance exposed by Willie Hofmeyr, head of an anti-corruption agency called the Special Investigating Unit. He told Parliament this week that around 20% of all government procurements, or about $3.8 billion, go missing each year -- some of it stolen, the rest untraceable because of negligence.

Twenty percent. The government didn't fall. It barely blinked.

Hofmeyr said his unit was investigating more than 900 cases of questionable contracts and conflicts of interest, valued at more than $635 million. But with only 700 investigators, they were scratching the surface. Ten times that number would be needed to do the job properly, he said.

The worst theft, he said, took place at the local level, where there wasn't much oversight.

In a speech in June, the head of the trade union council, Zwelinzima Vavi, condemned a "powerful, corrupt, predatory elite" and called on President Jacob Zuma to act against corrupt ministers.

The council, COSATU, this week called on Zuma to take swift action against Sicelo Shiceka, the minister who is said to have spent nearly $70,000 visiting his lover in a Swiss jail in 2008. Shiceka is also accused of staying in a luxury Cape Town hotel instead of the official house provided by the state.

Shiceka, a close Zuma ally, was investigated by another corruption buster, independent Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who released her report Friday.

"What matters to me is that something is done, and within a reasonable time frame, so that justice is speedy," she said on television Friday.

Shiceka is one of the government's most controversial figures, with a reputation for a love of bling and a lavish lifestyle. The Citizen newspaper reported that he built himself a luxury mansion in his village of Ingquza Hill in the Eastern Cape and had the local municipality construct a new road to the village. It also claimed he took a helicopter to go shopping.

Shiceka rejected the public protector's findings Friday, saying they were baseless and unfair.

A presidential spokesman said Zuma would respond to the recommendations when he was ready.


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-- Robyn Dixon

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Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma in New York in September. Credit: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images