Lockdown rules provide opportunities for criminal activity

In SA's second phase of lockdown a variety of social problems have emerged most notably that of hunger and economic desperation in vulnerable communities.

Sickeningly some in local government have taken advantage of this by selling phoney permits for trade forming part of what is emerging as a class of “underpreneurs”; a term coined by journalist Gus Silber as “a new breed of SA entrepreneur operating under the radar to offer customers alcohol cigarettes and possibly roast chicken during lockdown. A thriving new economic subcategory”.

While Silber’s widely spread tweet was likely written in jest any draconian set of regulations (forbidding alcohol consumption for instance) will invite black-market activity where there are opportunities to circumvent the regulations and make money.

In local government the opportunity presents itself in the issuing of permits to trade. Already several former Tshwane councillors have been found to have falsely sold permits to informal traders after a relaxation of legislation allowed informal traders to continue with their subsistence activities (Tshwane was dissolved and councillors therefore have no legal standing).

In another case a Nelson Mandela Bay councillor has been fined for issuing a taxi driver with a bogus permit to operate and a Steve Tshwete ANC councillor is said to have issued fake business permits to foreign nationals.

The Unified SA Traders organisation is considering pressing criminal charges for the Tshwane incidents and expressed concern that permits were being issued in Polokwane to individuals who were not traders.

Such permits present a classic opportunity for rent-seeking whereby a regulator is able to award preferential trading conditions or exemptions. Fortunately both informal traders and taxi operators have strong organisational bodies that can and should keep a close eye on such incidents of corruption and report them to relevant authorities.

Another concern for local government is the unequal or corrupt distribution and possible politicisation of the distribution of food parcels with councillors responsible for identifying those most in need of assistance. In desperate times any distribution considered unfair or unequal can spark riots such as those seen in Mitchells Plain last week and should be guarded against to avert the risk of further and potentially widespread protests.

In addition there have already been numerous incidents in which councillors have been accused of soliciting “donations” and giving food parcels to constituents family members and those who are not poor.

Political bias has been alleged in the allocation of food parcels in the North West (by the EFF and DA) Tshwane (by Sanco) Emfuleni (by the DA) KwaZulu-Natal (by Cosatu and community activists); and the Eastern Cape (by the UDM); while the Northern Cape beneficiary lists submitted to the premier by councillors were found to be “flawed” in some cases. Perhaps incidents such as these influenced the sage decision announced on Tuesday evening to direct support to the most vulnerable through grants rather than food parcels.

There is also the risk of substandard (corrupt) procurement as alleged in Mbombela which is investigating the procurement of substandard sanitisers (with inadequate alcohol content). Such sickening opportunism needs to be identified and dealt with quickly and with the full might of the law with unequivocal political condemnation as a large swathe of SA households endure hardship during this period of lockdown.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has correctly condemned such behaviour: “If there is found to be substance to these allegations we will deal with the individuals concerned harshly.” ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte called for the arrest of offenders.

Combating the sadly inevitable emergence of the underpreneur class in local government and the public sector as a whole requires strong humble political leadership to counter what appears to have become institutionalised corruption.

Politicians cannot be seen to be either above the law (flouting it such as the Eastern Cape councillor and ANC chief whip in the Chris Hani district who has resigned after being caught driving drunk; or attending gatherings such as the Ingquza Hill’s speaker who attended an Easter service) nor using it for political gain.

Of course not all underpreneurs are to be found in the public sector and Silber’s original description is of individual (private sector) hustlers. Examples of such miscreants who are clashing with local government are land grabbers who are alleged to be using the lockdown as an opportunity to illegally seize land. Sadly evictions as a result of the land grabs have displaced a number of extremely vulnerable households caught in the crossfire.

Now more than ever is the time for leadership and integrity — and follow-up and consistency on cases of ill-doing is critical to stymie the proliferation of underpreneurs.