The blame game continues as public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde asks the court to cancel the multi-million rand police lease contract with businessman Roux Shabangu, which she blames on officials and predecessors. CARIEN DU PLESSIS wonders if the department is swimming in corruption, or drowning in it.
It was Geoff Doidge who did it, public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde said in papers filed in the Pretoria high court on Tuesday, in a surprise application to cancel her department’s massive R614 million lease agreement with businessman Roux Shabangu for new police headquarters in mid-town Pretoria.
Pity she didn’t feel so strongly about it when she was appointed in Doidge’s place in October last year (he is now ambassador to Sri Lanka) or she could have saved some bucks on legal fees. Even though the contract was signed under Doidge’s watch in July, he put it on ice to investigate after an independent legal advisor told him it could be invalid.
When she replaced him, Mahlangu-Nkabinde promptly reinstated the lease (as well as a R1.1 billion lease of a building in Durban), and this led to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s finding that Mahlangu-Nkabinde was guilty of “improper” and “unlawful” conduct.
According to Doidge’s version, his then director-general Siviwe Dongwana had found inconsistencies in the Pretoria lease agreement, which led to the suspension of the agreement.
But in December, Dongwana was suspended by Mahlangu-Nkabinde. He told Madonsela he felt pressured by the minister to reinstate the lease deal.
In her new-found zeal to get evil officials out of the way, Mahlangu-Nkabinde has subsequently also shipped off her acting director-general Sam Vukela on special leave.
Despite having issued press releases about these “sabotaging” officials in the past couple of days (on Monday she announced that a departmental investigation uncovered R3 billion of tender corruption – we’re still not sure if that included the police leases), she left it to DA MP John Steenhuisen to tell journalists about the acting director-general.
Steenhuisen, on Tuesday morning before the court announcement, called for the minister to do the right thing and resign. Later he had to welcome Mahlangu-Nkabinde’s court move, although he said he found it “interesting”: “She is going to court to overturn a decision she in essence supported,” he said. The leases were illegal and voidable back then, but they now have to be voided in court, which meant extra money and trouble, he said.
Steenhuisen reckoned that Mahlangu-Nkabinde’s new-found zeal for corruption-fighting – just a few weeks ago she was declared “uncooperative” by Madonsela – could have something to do with an “explosive” auditor-general’s report about to be released, which he said would be damning of her department’s procurement and financial affairs.
“She is now trying to cast herself as the saviour of the department, and trying to prepare the South African public for the report,” he said. “She said she was handed a poisoned chalice when she was appointed, but she herself drank deeply from the chalice.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Mahlangu-Nkabinde explained the situation as follows: “These contracts were entered into before I became minister. Part of the reason it has taken some time to get to the point of filing court papers is because of obstruction I received from within the department, and because I received contradictory legal advice”.
She also denied that the lease agreements had cost the South Africa taxpayer anything to date.
“We have not paid Mr Shabangu one cent, no work was ever started on the Durban offices and nor have we authorised Mr Shabangu’s company to complete any work on the Middestad (Pretoria police headquarters) building.”
She also said some officials were under investigation.
“We have the courage to say publicly we have a problem with corruption in the department,” Mahlangu-Nkabinde said.
Shabangu, who is not friends with President Jacob Zuma (the only time the President has spoken out about the matter so far, was to deny the friendship), told Sapa on Tuesday through his spokeswoman Lelo Zulu that he welcomed the court application because it would bring clarity on the matter.
“This matter has been hanging for too long,” Zulu said. “The sooner the court decides on the validity of the lease, the better it would be for us as a company to continue with our course of business.”
Madonsela’s report into the matter had found that the public works department had deviated from tender processes, that the lease agreements were not at the market rate, and that Shabangu allegedly pressured officials to finalise the deals.
The report is due to be discussed by the police and public works portfolio committees in Parliament soon. DM