Cape Town - Parliament's watchdog public accounts committee (Scopa) dismissed criticism on Wednesday that the public finance rules are too onerous.
It urged ministers to take a keener interest in enforcing the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA).
"The PFMA too stringent? No, I think that is a lazy argument from people who are struggling to orientate themselves to operate in a rules-based environment," Scopa chairperson Themba Godi said.
"So I would not want to buy it."
Godi was briefing reporters on the committee's strategy for dealing with a slew of damning departmental audit outcomes for 2010/11.
It includes plans to call to account suspect officials even if they were no longer in their posts, to prevent the buck-passing that has frequently frustrated Scopa's attempts to pinpoint waste and graft.
Godi said the PFMA contained an "escape clause" in that it provided that any accounting officer guilty of gross negligence could be charged criminally, but failed to define this.
"So its interpretation can become very subjective. So far we have not had any heads of departments criminally prosecuted, even though the state has suffered millions of rands of losses," he said.
"If anything, I would actually support an amendment to the PFMA that seeks to clearly define what constitutes a criminal offence on the part of the heads of departments."
Godi's comments echoed calls by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan last month for ministers to be more accountable and the PFMA to be amended to impose tougher sanctions on errant officials.
The Scopa chairperson warned that both the PFMA and the constitution refer to ministers' responsibilities.
While duties could be delegated, responsibility could never be abdicated, he said.
This included an obligation to fire officials who misbehaved and, where appropriate, to prosecute them.
Godi complained that Scopa lacked teeth in forcing departments to take action because it had to rely on directors general to apply its recommendations.
"If there is one area that needs to be looked at... it is how do we as oversight link with law enforcement, so that when we have instances we believe need to be looked at criminally we are not beholden to what the DGs may or may not do," Godi said.
"As things stand, ours is to identify issues and expect that because the PFMA says they must act they will act, and yet we find that it is not always the case."
He said the Public Service Commission had agreed that "the appetite for taking action" is not there.
In instances where this happened, it amounted to no more than a slap on the wrist, which did not go far in saying there was a zero tolerance for corruption.
"So I would say that your first challenge would be at leadership level in terms of ensuring that the law is applied to the fullest."
Godi singled out Gordhan and Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for praise for the way they ran their departments.
He also had kind words for former defence secretary Mpumi Mpofu, who quit with immediate effect last week.
Scopa feared her departure might set back defence's concerted efforts to improve its financial management after an uninterrupted string of qualified audits.
"She came in last year, she appeared before the committee and from the clarity of her responses and for me, knowing her from housing and transport, I was convinced that the department had somebody who had balls," Godi said.
"With her leaving... we are praying and hoping that the department will sustain the momentum towards eliminating all the issues on which the auditor general has raised concerns."