Concern for safety of South African auditors mounts

8 Mar 19

Fears have been growing in South Africa over the safety of public sector auditors since their work was given greater teeth.

Changes to the public audit rule have been hailed a big step forward for the country but could lead to retaliation by public sector officials, say PF International sources.

Their comments follow reports of public sector auditors in South Africa being threatened and one being shot just before the rule change in November last year.  

Bruce Vivian, who manages a partnership of umbrella groups called the African Professionalisation Initiative said the strengthening of South Africa’s Public Audit Act was a “huge achievement”. The auditor general has 3,500 auditors under him, and the law gives him greater powers to tackle the issues his auditors highlight in their reports [see box below].

But Vivian added: “Auditors are facing increased push back and intimidation when they perform their work.”

South Africa must “ensure we protect our public sector auditors because they play an important role in ensuring that public funds are used for the benefit of all citizens”, he added.

A consultant who works in the public sector in South Africa, who did not wish to be named, also told PF International there is “widespread corruption in the public sector in South Africa” and the “focus on irregular expenditure” will “probably lead to a further increase in threats to auditors”.

The consultant said: “When people are pushed into a corner, they do stupid things.” Another anonymous source told PF International that care had to be taken to ensure the wrong people were not punished under the increased powers.

Politicians in South Africa were “masters” at keeping their name out of audit trails, so their illegal actions can’t be traced back, he said.  

The country’s auditor general, Kimi Makwetu, said it was “absolutely” public sector officials, “scared of the report of the auditors”, who were likely behind the attacks and intimidations last year.

But he explained the rules had brought a “natural excitement to the people doing the audits”, as their findings cannot now be ignored. Previously, public sector audits had been taken less seriously by officials, Makwetu said.

Since 2017, there have been around 25 incidents of auditors being intimidated, he told PF. Ghana introduced similar powers in 2017, which have made it “much nicer for the auditors” because their reports had been given weight, Makwetu said.

Gillian Fawcett, an international public finance consultant, said that a stronger auditor general in South Africa would play a key role in helping to fight corruption there.

The Audit Amendment Act was signed into law in November last year.

The auditor general is still working to embed the system.

Currently, the auditor general must submit a report to parliament, which decides whether further action will be taken. But when the changes to the Public Audit Act take effect, the auditor general will be able to pass the case on to any relevant authority, which could take further action.

Key changes include:

  • The auditor general can refer material irregularities found in the audits to relevant public bodies for further investigations.  
  • The office will be able to issue a certificate of debt where the accounting officer or accounting authority failed to recover losses from a responsible person, in cases of fraud.
  • The auditor general will be able to revise the provisions on the appointment of an audit committee and give additional reporting requirements.

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