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Mpumalanga’s corruption cancer grows every day

For some, there's plenty of money to be made in the heady concoction of crime and politics that is Mpumalanga these days, but those who try to expose corruption become targets of attacks or often end up dead. Samwu’s local leader, Kgokedi Mphahlele, explains how graft networks work in the South Africa’s deadliest province. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Mpumalanga’s architects of corruption are experienced, smart and incredibly savvy when it comes to cleaning up their tracks. This is the view of the South African Municipal Workers’ Union’s Mpumalanga provincial secretary Kgokedi Mphahlele.

“In Mpumalanga graft is covert and very difficult to root out,” he says. “When people give us information and we pursue the matter, they often find themselves without a job. The people that are doing these things (corruption) are clever, and they do it in a way that you can’t see or so they cannot be sued,” he says.

Mphahlele says the modus operandi of municipal enrichment merchants is to infiltrate local governments, take over pivotal financial, supply chain and municipal manager roles. Once these are “owned” by fraudsters, the criminals coerce others to join the enrichment schemes. Failure to participate means being sidelined, losing your job, intimidation, attacks or worse. “The corruption at this level isn’t about taking money, it’s about tenders. We find people in power channel tenders where they want them to go. They bring their people into council or influence those around them so it becomes a matter of coercion as well as corruption.”

Mphahlele says threat and coercion make it very difficult to root out and eliminate corruption. “The problem of maladministration and corruption isn’t open. When key people have to be replaced, we see posts standing vacant for a long time because people are looking for their own people to put into the ranks,” says Mphahlele.

News of corruption flows thick and fast from Mpumalanga, but is occasionally interrupted by reports of the deaths of politicians or government officials who spoke out about procurement irregularities in the province or were linked to tender fraud.

Incidents of intimidation are as frequent as news of corruption that streams from the province. Late last year provincial minister and SACP member Madala Masuku was attacked for the fourth time. Masuku is said by Mail & Guardian to be a contender for Premier David Mabuza’s crown. In January 2011 Sowetan reported how Sheila Mabaso, the CFO for Nkomazi municipality, took three months sick leave to get married. This after being suspended for using council money to pay her university fees without authorisation.

In April City Press told the story of Hugh Mbatha, a municipal manager for Ehlanzeni district municipality, who kept his job despite being investigated by the Public Protector for corruption involving more than R200 million as well as being charged with two counts of fraud and one of contravening the Finance Management Act.

In June acting co-operative governance minister Nathi Mthethwa announced that five senior managers from three Mpumalanga municipal councils had been suspended for financial mismanagement or corruption. And this month the SABC reported that eight government officials were arrested in Mpumalanga in two separate cases of fraud.

Mpumalanga’s corruption networks not only exact a loss of life, unemployment and wasted resources, but cause major staff disruptions. The provincial union boss says only one executive mayor in Mpumalanga has been retained and that in many areas the union has a major problem because of the requirement for new staff. “The new mayors want their own people, not the old staff. We are seeing new people who come in and don’t have the skills to replace municipal managers, but rather people who are connected or part of the network.

“You look at the vacant posts and the municipalities say they are short staffed, yet it is not about filling the post but getting the right person who will help with the corruption and use the same political process to channel tenders,” says Mphahlele. “You can go through the process and try to get a job, but they know who they want.”

In Mpumalanga it appears you can only win a tender if you know someone or can only be appointed in local government if you are connected. “It is not about the skills. It is not about service delivery. Those in local government don’t check skills or service delivery. It is about whether you can channel tenders in the right direction,” says Mphahlele.

“When you don’t comply you are intimidated and here I am not talking about mere harassment,” the union man says, “One municipal manager who was suspended for speaking out about corruption had her house burnt down.”

In April this year Monica Mathebela, former municipal manager for the Dr JS Moroka municipality in Mpumalanga was fired. Later the CCMA and the courts ruled her dismissal unfair and unlawful. Samwu says Mathebela was dismissed because she was involved in investigating fraud in local government. “Monica Mathebela’s house was burnt down and, even though she won her case, the municipality refuses to let her back. They terminated her contract, which is supposed to run until 2014, without a hearing. Legally the municipality still needs to pay her.”

In early July Mail & Guardian reported that municipalities “are feeding graft” and that municipal workers would likely go on strike because nothing is being done about institutional failure and the victimisation of whistleblowers in municipalities.

Although Mathebela is without a job and a house, she is fortunate in that she still has her life. In Mpumalanga political murders are frequent and often happen with impunity. In January this year controversial police chief Bheki Cele sent a team of 12 investigators to Mpumalanga to investigate the ongoing political murders in the province.

Recent deaths include the murder of Johan Ndlovu, chief whip of the Ehlanzeni district municipality killed in January 2011, Sammy Mpatlanyane, director of communication at the provincial department of arts and culture killed in January 2010 and Jimmy Mohlala who was murdered outside his home in January 2009. Police records show that since 1998 at least 14 government officials or politicians have been killed.

Writing for the South African Civil Society Information Service, Jane Duncan, the Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society at Rhodes’ University’s School of Journalism, called assassination the ultimate form of censorship. “Political assassinations create a climate of fear, where whistleblowers may choose to stay silent instead of speaking out about wrongdoing in government. As a result, the already alarmingly high levels of corruption in some of the most impoverished provinces may grow unchecked.”

Duncan writes that the lack of a culture of disclosure in the public and private sectors was causing a decline in whistleblowing at a time when it was most needed. “According to research on whistleblowing undertaken for the Open Democracy Advice Centre by Ipsos Markinor, the number of whistleblowers has decreased every year from 2007, and is now at its lowest level since the start of the tracking in 2006. At the same time, according to the Public Service Commission’s 2010 report, there has been a twelvefold increase in fruitless and wasteful expenditure from 2007, coupled with a sharp decline in the government’s response to corruption cases. The picture that emerges is of a public service alive with possibility for corrupt employees.”

Mphahlele says intimidation and corruption were like a cancer in Mpumalanga and have spread throughout the province. “It is growing bit by bit. They are becoming so powerful that in the end you will have no option but to join them. You can’t defeat these people because they are so powerful and they will eventually be in every municipality.” DM



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Photo: A general view of Nelspruit with the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature in the foreground, November 24, 2009. REUTERS/Rogan Ward