Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2000-11-03 Reporter: Editor:

He is a Small Man, but with Large Ambitions

Publication  Business Day
Date 2000-11-03
Web Link

He is a small man, but with large ambitions PARLIAMENT's standing committee on public accounts asserted its power and authority over the executive in a dramatic fashion this week when it decided to call for a multipronged probe into government's R30bn defence procurement package.

Allegations of corruption, irregularities in the awarding of some of the contracts and a lack of adequate guarantees regarding benefits were all sources of concern. 

The case demonstrated once again the increasing effectiveness with which the committee is performing its watchdog function. Less visible is the continuing work it is engaged in demanding that departments improve their financial management systems and account to Parliament on their progress. 

The police department in particular is showing signs of benefiting from the committee's involvement. The work is a team effort, but directing and shaping it is the pintsized, energetic, determined and indefatigable chairman of the committee, Gavin Woods, 52, of the Inkatha Freedom Party. Even-tempered, cheerful, always polite and with a hearty laugh he has set ambitious goals for the committee and introduced a businesslike efficiency into the way it handles the more than 200 audit reports emanating from the auditor-general's office each year.

Woods works prodigiously hard and requires his public accounts team to do likewise. He has introduced business plans to set goals and measure the performance of the committee though his personal organisational skills might not always match the systems he has introduced.

Woods may be small, but his ambitions are large and he wants the public accounts committee to be one of the most effective in the world. "I see the committee as a catalyst for great influence in the management of public finances in this country," Woods says.

He has a passion for instilling the virtue of sound financial management in the public sector which he believes can save SA billions of rands. He feels this is important at this particular moment in SA history because if waste and inefficiency are not drastically reduced now, the country will suffer for years to come.

Fighting fraud and corruption will become more of a priority for the committee in years to come. Woods believes that societies in transition are apt to slip down the slope of fraud and corruption and SA is showing all the signs of falling into the same trap. This trend has to be stopped.

Although inspired to make a contribution to the public good, Woods is not by nature a party political animal, which, perhaps, is why he has been able to forge a strong team spirit in the public accounts committee transcending party political divides. Being chairman of the committee requires that personalities and political positions be handled with tact and sensitivity.

His qualities of fairness and scrupulous integrity come to the fore in this task. Besides his chairmanship of the public accounts committee, Woods also distinguished himself as chairman of the subcommittee of Parliament's finance committee which made an enormous input into the design and content of the Public Finance Management Act, the implementation of which will modernise and introduce stringent accountabilty disciplines into the public sector.

He brings to his task a wealth of experience in the business world and an academic knowledge acquired through the pursuit of a number of degrees in economics, accountancy and sociology, including a doctorate in economics from St Gallen University in Switzerland, which focused on the informal sector. His university education came through part-time study or correspondence.

A measure, perhaps, of his drive is the distance he has travelled from his origins in a poor Catholic family of eight children in Estcourt in KwaZulu Natal. His first job was that of bank clerk. True to character, Woods has related to his physical difficulties with courage and fortitude. He contracted polio at a young age which affected one side of his body and required that he undergo 26 operations including amputation of a leg about 18 years ago.

"I have always lived life very intensely and have always had a hunger for knowledge and experience. I am a person who enjoys being alive and is quite fascinated by the complexity and vastness of the world," Woods says.

Woods's career as an IFP MP followed a variety of different positions as researcher and head of the Inkatha Institute for eight years from 1986, in the finance divisions of major companies such as AECI, Toyota and Premier, as a part-time lecturer and as a private entrepreneur running several businesses, including a marketing research company in Cape Town.

Extremely thorough, Woods can be irritatingly pedantic and long-winded. Directors-general fear their grilling for hours by the public accounts committee, which acts severely against those who err. These fears might dissipate when they meet Woods only to return when he goes into action.

With acknowledgement to Business Day.