Hope that South Africa's COVID-19 corruption inspires action

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FILE In this Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 file photo, former South African President, Jacob Zuma, appears at a hearing of the Zondo Commission of Enquiry into State Capture. A special unit in the country is now investigating nearly $900 million worth of possible corruption in the procurement of COVID-19 contracts at the same time that allegations of widespread government graft continues. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, file)

CAPE TOWN – There's some hope in South Africa that this time the outrage against corruption inspires effective action.

Public anger over suspect government contracts worth nearly $900 million for the purchase of supplies to fight COVID-19 may finally bring the South African government to take more decisive steps against corruption, say experts.

Africa's most developed economy is already deeply mired in corruption with a commission of inquiry hearing allegations of widespread graft during the tenure of former president Jacob Zuma. The new charges of the misuse of public money earmarked to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to be a turning point, say those experts.

In a report last month, the government's Special Investigative Unit outlined how the procurement of personal protective equipment for hospitals and clinics and other supplies in the early months of the pandemic last year was abused by local, provincial, and national officials.

As South Africa’s virus cases multiplied rapidly, making it Africa’s worst affected country, those officials were signing off on more than 2,500 emergency contracts that were identified for investigation for corruption and mismanagement. More allegations are still coming in, investigators say, and their probe is ongoing.

Some of the alleged corruption was grand and complex, involving front companies moving millions of dollars through a web of bank accounts.

Other schemes were shamelessly simple, like overcharging for blankets to be given to the poor as winter set in. One, a $670,000 order to buy motorcycles with sidecars to use as ambulances for COVID-19 patients, was just absurd.

There was “a complete breakdown of the checks and balances," the unit said.