Magnifying government mistakes while muting private sector ones

There are lot more positives to take out of the ANC government than negatives, despite what the naysayers believe, writes JACOB TAU

ANC culture and tradition has always taught me to quantify challenges in order to scale them properly and to measure the weight of the remedy required. I have always found that being cerebral, basing everything on hard cold facts, and not emotion, rumour or hearsay is much more results-oriented than a hype that turns to be an end in itself with less interest in truth and in solutions.

There have been many instances where this hard-cold approach has brought focus and calm into a world where pundits and spin doctors are looking to harvest. When people said 27 schools in Limpopo had not received school material and the countrywide condemnation that ensued, my first question was “how many schools are in Limpopo”? I discovered there are over 4239 schools.

In 2014, a court judgment handed down against the Department of Basic Education instructed it to ensure the delivery of textbooks to all schools in Limpopo – one textbook per subject for each learner. The Department argued that such an order expected “an impossible standard of perfection” to which it should not be held.

Another contentious matter is that of children being taught in mud-schools or taught under trees. Again, my first question is how many schools are in the country. According to South African Schools4sa website, South Africa has approximately 26 000 schools nationally. How many mud-schools do we have? In an oral reply, the Minister of Basic Education told the National Assembly that in 2012 already the country had only 344 mud schools. Again 344 of 26 000 schools. One can understand the outrage, but when all the facts are placed on the table, the arguments are thin and make little sense me.

I could never possibly understand who it serves to oversell government mistakes (to a point of lying) and to undersell its successes (definitely not for the country). To talk openly about our challenges indicates that we are already miles ahead of the past. But to magnify them in the way we do, to a point where it becomes a prevailing national psyche, a collapsing education department, a failed state and so forth; it puzzles me and can only be because such magnification of these minuscule challenges helps others to wash away their sins because they are squarely responsible for the past that we have been dealing with for the past 23 years.

According to National Treasury, there are about 35 government departments 250 National Public Entities, making it almost impossible for Parliamentary Committees to get through them all. It is therefore curious that the five that we always hear about, Eskom, SAA, SABC, Denel, MDDA constitute all corruption and incompetence SOEs?

We don’t deny challenges at SOEs, but the notion of wholesale collapse and theft is not true as the facts in the annual reports of these entities show otherwise. This is the same thinking I have used to view the current KPMG problem and what its acts of dishonesty and loss of credibility mean for all of us.

According to the KPMG website, the audit firm serves more than 82% of Fortune Global 500 companies and more than 80% of the Forbes Global 1000. Already in 2004, three of the big four audit firms (Ernst & Young, KPMG, Deloitte, and PwC) audited the entire oil and gas industry, two audited 88.2 % of the casino industry, with similar results in air transport, coal, and other industries.

In South Africa, the big four firms audit 66% of the companies listed on the JSE. A loss in credibility in the work of KPMG will have immeasurable consequences that will reverberate throughout the world.

Jonathan R. Macey, a Yale University law professor, says: “There was a time audit functions were performed in an environment that induced high-quality financial reporting. In that era, accounting firms were willing to put their seal of approval on the financial records of a financial company, if only the company agreed to conform to high standards imposed by the accounting profession. Investors trusted accountants because investors knew that if accounting firms were sloppy or corrupt, they could not stay in business for long. Auditors had significant incentives to do superior work because auditors with strong reputations could command a fee premium, and high fees, signalled quality in the auditing market”.

The biggest advantage of the South African economy is that we have a thriving private sector with many big and midsize companies. The private sector accounts for 70% of gross domestic product. This is a double-edged sword particularly when the private sector is hit by a huge scandal that threatens an erosion of confidence in the entire industry, cascading into other industries.

The impact of KPMG’s unethical behaviour is monumental. It cannot be muted and it cannot be wished away because of its direct impact on business confidence. In order for us never to repeat such mistakes there must be 100% transparency, 100% disclosure, and clear lessons must be drawn by everyone, particularly regulatory bodies and the media, that their obsession with government leaves other stakeholders unchecked and at the whims of the gaze of their conscience, which may occasionally fail them and doom us all.

That is why Justice Edwin Cameron’s latest message that any South African who feels an “emigration of the soul” must remember that they are better off than during apartheid. “We have a miracle of a functioning democracy‚ a functioning constitutional state where despite its glaring inefficiencies and the grave perils to it‚ the law still prevails‚” Cameron wrote in The Times.

People who love the country have pointed to the good decisions government has taken that have been much more consequential and impactful than the bad ones. Edna Molewa, the Minister of Environmental Affairs, placed an emphasis on this impact by highlighting a few major achievements:

  1. In 2008, the year before President Jacob Zuma assumed office, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) provided funding to the tune of R2.4-billion. By 2014 this figure was R9.5-billion, excluding additional funding provided by the Department of Higher Education and Training. Today that figure is over R15 billion and education is free for the poor
  2. Life expectancy increased from 56.8 years in 2009 to 59.6 years in 2016. This can be attributed to this government’s interventions to combat tuberculosis, HIV/Aids, and the reason why South Africa is cited for international best practice by the United Nations Aids Programme (UNAIDS).
  3. In 2009, more than 13-million people received social grants. Today that figure stands at more than 17-million men women and children.
  4. The numbers of people with no formal education or low levels of education has steadily decreased and now stands at 16.2%.

These are real and measurable successes. Unfortunately, in the world we live in people forget about what our country looked like 30 years ago for Africans, Coloureds and Indians. Today we have real successes of building roads, schools, bridges and skyscrapers, real jobs and a real safety net for our people away from poverty. We can and must do better.

 Tau is the Provincial Secretary of South African Students Congress (SASCO) in Mpumalanga Province 

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