South African President Jacob Zuma is putting the final touches on his cabinet selections, under the watchful eye of The Mail and Guardian, South Africa’s leading newspaper. Sifting through records of each minister’s declared interests, the M & G has put together a comprehensive list of the financial holdings and corporate positions of each minister. To no one’s surprise, the list has 42 percent of the executive branch (including the president) implicated in a potential conflict of interest.
According to the Global Integrity Report: South Africa, members of the executive branch are required to file asset disclosure forms on an annual basis. However, there is no legal requirement that these disclosures be audited. In practice, a random sample may be scrutinized, but not with the gusto shown by the M & G.
The newspaper investigated the business holdings of each member of Zuma’s new cabinet and found that 27 members of the executive are actively involved (though at varying levels) in 149 companies. Minister of Human Settlements Tokyo Sexwale was highlighted in the paper’s article for his directorship of 43 different boards. (Subsequently, Sexwale has spoken publicly on his commitment to give up his duties while in office.)
As part of their research, the M & G also asked each politician for a statement to explain his or her level of involvement in companies or corporations disclosed. Most ministers spoke to their commitment to government as a top priority, promising to either resign from any executive or board positions and/or to remove themselves from debate, should a conflict arise. These responses, which sound close to identical, all carefully reflect a growing national concern over conflict of interests.
Talk of “cooling off periods” and other conflict of interest regulations grew after a 2001 broad investigation into minister-level dealings. However, The Star reports that “more than five years later, no legislation to this effect has been promulgated. The revolving-door issue continues to be debated, and calls for post-employment restrictions continue to be made.” This concern was recently reintroduced to the public agenda at the Polokwane Conference in Feb. 2008. The Global Integrity Report: South Africa makes mention of a 2008 Public Service Commission report which “identified up to 89 percent of senior management in some departments with potential conflicts of interest.” Regulations for post-government employment were also debated last year as part of the Single Public Service Bill 2008.
The Mail and Guardian deserves credit for keeping conflict of interest regulations on the national agenda. The high level of pressure the paper placed on individual members of the executive forced the newly selected government elite to explain and reevaluate their private sector roles. Hopefully the paper’s impact doesn’t stop there, and future thinking continues on the need to legislate conflict of interest regulations for South African public servants during and after their government tenures.
— Norah Mallaney