Mail & Guardian journalist on hit list over stadium corruption reporting

By Branko Brkic 15 January 2010

If the Nelspruit's Bombela stadium story wasn't so serious, it would make a good thriller. Denzel Washington would play Lucky Sindane, a plucky Mail & Guardian sports journalist who comes across one helluva story. It would involve grubby local politicians, a corrupt cop, and of course, a big international event.

We’re not entirely sure who to cast as the villain just yet, but we have a few people in mind. Again, if this was a film, we would by now be in scene three, at the point where the danger has already been introduced, and has now been made real for our hero. Already, in the earlier scenes, our audience has seen a dream unravel, angry political meetings and two murders.

Our nasty little tale starts in Nelspruit, Mbombela to use its “new” name, in Mpumalanga province, home of the Kruger National Park. It’s there that a glorious new stadium has been built for you know what, but at, perhaps, a bigger than necessary price. You see, everything was just fine and dandy. The tournament is coming, the tournament is coming, shouted the local children. And then the first rumblings of corruption were heard. About tenders, about the building, about who was involved and who wasn’t. We have a brave whistleblower. His name was Jimmy Mohlala. He’s dead now. He was the speaker of the Nelspruit municipality, shot dead just more than a year ago. Two hoods arrived at his house, started an argument about parking, and ended up shooting him. Could have happened to anyone, you’d think. But it was a hit.

For many months Mohlala tried to convince the local ANC to turn on Mbombela municipal manager, Jacob Dladla, the man he fingered as responsible for the tender collusion. But his local branch had turned on him, and demanded that he resign instead. Then he ended up dead.

The roots of his murder appear to lie with his decision to publicly out Dladla, who is the main candidate for the role of chief villain.  He’s the city manager in Mbombela now, and Mohlala was able to convince the city council to investigate him. In the end an independent group of attorneys conducted the probe. They found there was serious cause for concern, and recommended Dladla be “relieved of his duties”. But mayor Justice Nsibande intervened, refusing to sign the letter, and so Dladla stayed in his office. Using a couple of legal tricks he was able to keep arriving at work every day.

Then the provincial ANC intervened. In what would make for the “stormy meeting” scene in our film, the organisation turned on Mohlala and Nsibande. They decided it was Mohlala who should go. And for good measure, so should Nsibinde.

The point man in this for the money, according to the reports of people who’ve spent a lot of time on this, was the wonderfully named Differ Mogale.  He’s the council’s 2010 coordinator. According to the legal firm’s report, he paid Lefika Emerging Equity R43mn in an irregular transaction. Along with Basil Read, Lefika Equity is involved in the construction of the stadium.

The second person to die was a communications official at provincial arts and culture department, Sammy Patlatyana, killed in his home last week with a gun stolen from a police officer 11 days before. Details around his killing are murky. He died on his balcony, after being shot in his bed. There was no sign of forced entry. His link to the whole affair is a little more tenuous. But it appears he must have known something, or had the guts to know something, and perhaps say something. We do know he was on the same hit list as Mohlala.

Also on the list, some newspapers report, is our hero, Lucky Sindane, and several other journalists. The Sowetan/Sunday World has been investigating this story quite extensively and it appears some of the journos may come from that paper too. This would give you some indication of the stakes involved. Building a World Cup stadium is a massive business, with hundreds of millions at stake. And the fact that two people are now dead, and others are on a hit list shows they were all onto something. People usually don’t get killed because they’re wrong, but because they’re right.

Our thriller plot has plenty of scandals, and plenty of people to blame. The journalists are on the hit list. The gangsters are on the warpath. Lucky is on the run. But unlike the movies, there are actual people behind it all. All the police need to do is look at who got rich in the Nelspruit area pretty damn quickly. Follow the money. All roads and reports seem to lead to Lefika Emerging Equity, which has already threatened other media houses for publishing that. One of its directors is a Bobby Motaung. Yes, you’ve heard the surname before.

But the Mpumalanga ANC also deserves having a finger pointed at them. Hell, there was a whistleblower who knew what was going on, had the baddies pretty much bang to rights, and he’s the one drummed out of the party and now dead. That’s crap, and the dirt should stick to the whole party, with all, including higher-ups, feeling pain.

Mpumalanga is no stranger to corruption, with tenders always in focus. It’s been in the news so often and for so many years that already there are one or two academic case studies on the corruption in the place. At the time of the ANC meeting that turned on our heroes, the provincial leader, David Mabuza, refused to explain why it wanted them out. When asked why he was protecting corruption, he said the provincial ANC would explain its reasons “in good time”. That was more than a year ago and we’re still waiting. And just in case you’re wondering where Mabuza is now, look no further than the premier’s mansion in Mpumalanga, and you’ll find him. Mabuza is now the premier, obviously doing very well for himself. So much for the war on corruption.

Then there’s the rest of us, the media. You see, the Mail and Guardian and one or two others have done a lot of good work on this. But the story hasn’t been picked up by the rest of us. It should have been front page for weeks, and not letting up until bad guys are behind bars. And it’s only now that people are beginning to realise what’s actually happened, when people are dead and others are on the run for their lives. Today, more than ever, the media needs to fulfil its role in a free, democratic society. Unless we don’t care that our fundamental values are flushed down the drain by corruption and indifference, we, the media, better get our act together, and quickly.

How will our movie end? Will the goodies win? Will Lucky survive to ride off into the sunset as the credits role, while the bad guys are left behind to face a fate more terrible than death? Life hasn’t written that part yet. Sadly enough, we’re not sure the real-life happy ending is guaranteed. Not sure at all.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an EWN reporter)

Photo: A general view of the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit. REUTERS/Rogan Ward



Fudging, obfuscation and misdirection hobble the route to the nitty-gritty of expropriation

By Marianne Merten

"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer