PARLIAMENT heard this week how a former school nutritionprogramme director was awarded a R30million textbook contract by theDepartment of Education.
Cynthia Mpati, who now works for the KwaZulu-Natal education department, was a shareholder of Afribooks, which won a R30303249 tender to supply the department with foundation phase books. She was also a director of the company that owned Afribooks.
She failed to mention her connection to Afribooks on a mandatory financial disclosure form that all senior department officials were required to submit.
Mpati was caught out only after the auditor-general uncovered that more than 2000 public servants had received more than R600million from doing business with the government.
Like most countries, South Africa has mechanisms in place to try to deal with the issue of conflict of interest and the abuse of public office by individuals for personal gain.
For example, Section 17 of the Corrupt Activities Act stipulates that any person in the public service, who without prior managerial consent, knowingly acquires or holds a private interest in any contract, agreement or investment from or connected with the department, component or office in which he or she is employed, is guilty of an offence.
Mpati is apparently one of the public servants who has fallen foul of this provision.
The response given by education director-general Duncan Hindle to Mpati's case is also an indication of how dire the situation is.
Hindle told Parliament he could not take responsibility for what provincial education staff did.
Recent hearings at the Standing Committee on Public Accounts revealed that investigations by the Public Service Commission and the Auditor-General over the past years found large numbers of serious breaches involving the payment of large amounts of taxpayers' money to businesses of public servants, friends and families.
In fact, the investigations revealed that there was a regression in the disclosure and monitoring of conflicts of interest. In some cases non-compliance had become habitual, with about 10 percent of senior managers refusing to disclose their financial interests.
Unfortunately, no evidence of remedial or disciplinary action was recorded.
Hindle also suggested that as Mpati's job had nothing to do with procurement, there was no conflict of interest. He also said Mpati's conduct was not illegal.
Education portfolio committee chairperson Fatima Chohan-Kota pointed out, correctly, that Mpati had the inside knowledge of the department.
"Even if they don't participate directly, you have no sense of the relationships within the department and how it affects the outcomes."
One of the most succinct descriptions of conflict of interest written recently was by Australian public service ombudsman GE Brouwder.
"Conflict of interest simply describes a situation of divided loyalties. This involves public servants having their bread buttered both sides," he wrote in a 2008 report on ethics in the public sector.
"It is an important factor in the weakening of citizens' trust in public institutions worldwide and the democratic systems broadly."
According to the Auditor-General's report, Mpati is one of public servants who "had their bread buttered both sides".
In his description Brouwder raised an important issue of how conflict of interest undermines trust in public institutions - the issue of perception.
Perception, he wrote, "is a critical aspect of the notion of public interest.
It is not only sufficient for public servants to declare a conflict of interest. They must also be seen to avoid situations where they might be perceived as being influenced by private interest."
As South Africans, we can learn from Brouwder that the issue of perception must become part of the debate about banning public servants from moonlighting.
It is important to accept that taxpayers expect higher standards of morality from public servants than (they do) from businesspeople.