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OPINION: The buying and selling influence in SA

South African state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are in crisis. One need only look at failures of corporate governance within SAA and the SABC to understand how deep the rot runs. Telkom has fared marginally better with 'beneath the radar' leadership trying to fix the broken lines, metaphorically speaking. But in general, our SOEs are graphic examples of just how much damage can be done by the blurring of party and state and nepotism. For they provide an environment ripe for conflicts of interest and corruption.

Yet it is Eskom that has become the most notorious as regards under-performance and government interference. Who can explain the removal of former Eskom CEO Tshediso Matona for instance? And the puzzle is complicated further by what seems like a reward by President Jacob Zuma in appointing him as a National Planning Commissioner. But that aside, Eskom has received the most criticism for the way in which poor management, possible corruption and excessive government interference has damaged and hamstrung our economy. Ordinary citizens reliant on the monopoly power-producer are only enraged at load shedding and Eskom's incompetence and inability to explain issues such as 'wet coal'.

So given citizens' lack of trust in Eskom in general, this week's news reports that the Gupta family, via its company Tegeta Exploration and Resources, had managed to procure a R4 billion contract to supply coal to Eskom for a period of 10 years raised eyebrows. It seems the contract was awarded despite serious concerns regarding the poor quality of the coal being produced by Tegeta. Employees within Eskom who raised the alarm regarding quality control of coal were suspended.

It raises several questions regarding the procurement processes, but also regarding those who blow the whistle on corrupt practices. As recent research by the Open Democracy Advice Centre has shown, the number of whistle-blowers in South Africa has decreased. Increasingly, whistle-blowers are seen as 'snitches' who will lose their jobs and not be protected as the law requires.

What is even more worrying about the recent reports is the perception of the buying of influence. It is a fact that the Guptas are close friends of the president's and rumours of their unrivalled access to him and his family have abounded for many years. In addition, the Guptas are known donors of the ANC and other political parties, including the DA. As a family they seem able to operate with a startling degree of chutzpah. How else would they be able to operate mines without the requisite licenses, land a private airplane at Waterkloof airforce base and summon Cabinet ministers to pointless breakfasts to boost their ailing newspaper, The New Age?

One now draws the inevitable conclusion that the close relationship between President Zuma and the Gupta family is influencing procurement processes in a manner that undermines the delivery of services to the South African public given the latest Eskom debacle. Who allowed the tender process to continue despite the poor quality of coal? And what were the processes followed? The public surely has the right to know how this chain of decision-making occurred and why it seemed to favour the Guptas so obviously?

The question that this story raises is also one that is inextricably linked to the secret funding of political parties. Do the Guptas fund the ANC? If so, how much are they donating and how? We will not know, as there is no requirement on any political party to declare how much money it raises.

Such secrecy creates an environment ripe for those, like the Guptas, who wish to buy influence and gain access to state tenders, even if they are ill equipped to deliver. It means too that in a country as unequal as ours, there are those who seem to enjoy not only special access to those in power, but they also deprive all of us as citizens of proper services by allegedly delivering sub-standard coal in this case.

One of the major challenges facing our economy is the energy crisis. It is a pity that Eskom (no doubt supported by powerful politicians nudging it in the right direction) would play fast and loose with our economy, citizen trust as well as the threat of potential downgrades by awarding tenders to the politically connected who appear unable to do the job.

One wonders whether Zuma has much, if anything, to say about this? After all, there was no political accountability when the Guptas landed their private jet at Waterkloof. As ever, bureaucrats paid the price.

As the major shareholder in Eskom one might have expected some outcry at this blatant failure to deliver coal at such a crucial time? Yet, there is no such outcry. Instead senior leaders of the ANC, like the hapless Mathole Motshekga, shoot their mouths off in ignorance after the scientific discovery of Homo naledi. And Zuma himself decides to rebuke the European Union for its handling of the refugee crisis.

One might say to Motshekga, "Please abandon the pseudo-science, it's embarrassingly backward" and one might mention to the president that really he has no authority on foreign policy given his own government's compromised stance on a range of related matters. The world is not listening. "Perhaps, Mr President, you might first wish to deal with our country's own xenophobia, economic crises and while you are at it, keep your friends away from state tenders."

_Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: _ @judith_february

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