South Africa

Ace Magashule’s Potemkin villages of the Free State

By Mandy De Waal 6 March 2013

These days, everyone’s talking about Free State Premier Ace Magashule’s Operation Hlasela, but for all the wrong reasons. A consolidated development project-cum-propaganda effort, Hlasela was also the umbrella under which the Free State’s new website was developed at a price ranging from R40 million to R 140 million, depending on who you ask. Equally disturbingly, it is this self-same Operation Hlasela that trumpets its promises of jobs, RDP houses, land and infrastructure to poor and unemployed people; promises that rarely materialise. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Residents of the Rammolutsi informal settlement near Viljoenskroon in the Free State are on the warpath. They are taking to the streets because they are fed up with having to live with pit toilets, exploitation and empty promises. Local civic leaders say that on Wednesday 6 March 2013 the community will march en masse to protest against corruption, political nepotism, poor service delivery and the intransigence of their local government – Moqhaka Municipality.

The Rammolutsi Crisis Committee says its constituents are being discriminated against because ANC councillors from the Moqhaka Municipality only assign plots of land to members of the ruling party. The committee alleges that councillors are selling land and houses designated for the poor and are charging communities for non-existent municipal services.

“As a community we say that we are sick and tired of the corruption and the cheating,” Rammolutsi resident and protest organiser Bramage Sekete tells Daily Maverick on the phone from the Free State. “The local municipality don’t even consult with us, they just do what they want to do,” he says.

Perhaps Sekete is so angry because he’s failed to read the latest propaganda missives from the premier’s office which are being published to the world, courtesy of a new website called Free State Online that The Sowetan reported cost taxpayers some R140 million.

The website sports a story of Magashule promising the province more jobs, and in another features the statistician-general for Statistics South Africa, Pali Lehohla, complimenting Magashule on the “strides that the Free State government has made regarding service delivery”.

The whole country’s talking about this website, but for all the wrong reasons. Media reports indicate that the site was built using an old WordPress template that can be bought for just $40. This mere days after Pravin Gordhan’s 2013 budget speech, during which he implored government departments to be more fiscally responsible and to demand competitive prices for products and services.

The Free State later issued a statement saying that the website “only” cost some R40 million, but an analysis of the tender by technology researcher Arthur Goldstuck revealed a contract worth some R90 million.

However, despite the incredible millions being spent by the province on “communications”, back in Rammolutsi locals say they can’t even get the time of day from their ANC ward councillor, Rachere Moletsane. “She has failed this community. She doesn’t come to ward meetings and she doesn’t take complaints or listen to our grievances,” says Sekete, who accuses the municipality of widespread corruption and nepotism in the allocation of RDP land and houses purportedly designated for rural development.

“We marched last year and the ANC made a lot of promises, but now these ANC councillors are playing delaying tactics. Instead of allocating land and these houses to unemployed, poor and working- class people living in the informal settlement, they give this land to their family, friends and to party members. The needy people in Rammolutsi get nothing,” Sekete says in a telephonic interview.

“How it works is that land is allocated by way of residential numbers, and these numbers are being given to ANC supporters. If you are poor or unemployed or don’t support the ANC all you get are empty promises,” he adds.

“The RDP houses are being sold and we don’t know what the councillors are doing with the money. When the premier [Magashule] launched Operation Hlasela we were told that it was illegal to sell an RDP house, that the land and the houses were meant to be for the poor,” Sekete says.

“We even got the Operation Hlasela newsletters which told us about the project. In that newsletter it was written that the Operation Hlasela houses are not for sale – that it is a criminal action to sell those houses meant for the poor. But the councillors, they are selling them,” the community leader says.

“The very same houses that are pictured in the Operation Hlasela newsletter are being sold here in Rammolutsi. If you are a card-carrying member of the ANC and know people from the municipality you can buy an RDP plot of land for R40,000. Other people who are buying the houses say that they pay about R120,000 for the plot with the house on. Where is this money going to? Is it going into the municipal coffers? We don’t even know this,” Sekete laments.

Now, Operation Hlasela is a very interesting phenomenon. It was launched by Magashule in 2009 as a grand-scale, multi-million rand development project that was supposed to alleviate poverty, create jobs and stimulate economic growth while ridding the province of crime and corruption. Businesses were urged to dig deep into their pockets and contribute towards the project, which was run from the Free State premier’s office.

But very soon the project was mired in controversy and in January 2011 Magashule’s pet project no longer got funding from the Department of Human Settlements, because the province was not able to spend these funds. At the time some R263m in housing grants was taken away from the province.

By November 2011 it was at the Public Protector’s office for investigation. Operation Hlasela is a multi-headed hydra which – when it is not saving the poor of the Free State – operates as a profile-building platform (read propaganda tool) to promote the premier. The communications arm of Operation Hlasela not only includes a newsletter, but a television channel called Hlasela TV, and more recently, one of the most expensive websites in South Africa.

“The DA asked the Public Protector to investigate Operation Hlasela a while ago, and we are still waiting for the Public Protector to give us the outcome of this investigation. But that hasn’t stopped Ace Magashule from launching Hlasela TV and this new Free State website that was created to the tune of about R140 million,” says Patricia Kopane, DA leader in the Free State.

What the premier (and longest serving ANC provincial chairman) did when he assumed office in 2009 was to instruct all provincial government departments and municipalities to channel communications through his offices, which resulted in a central tender procurement procedure for all the advertising, newsletters, websites and other communications in the Free State.

“Most of the advertising and communications is being done by businessman Tumi Ntsele of Letlaka Group who created the Free State’s website for the unbelievable amount of R140 million, even though the site uses a very old and cheap template which I believe one can buy for only $40,” Kopane tells Daily Maverick.

“Ntsele runs a weekly newspaper for the premier called The Weekly which brags about all of Magashule’s supposed good deeds. The newspaper is like The New Age in that it promotes Magashule and the provincial government but it is paid for by the premier’s office,” Kopane alleges.

Today The Weekly carries a story about Magashule’s unbridled loyalty to the ANC which reads: “The premier pulled no punches in defending the ANC against unwarranted attacks from opposition parties.” Another story issued a warning to protest organisers and revealed that the Free State MEC for police, roads and transport, Butana Komphela, would “unleash all the law enforcement agencies” to bring “protest kingpins” to book in an attempt to quash recent “violent service delivery protests”.

“Ntsele also owns Hlasela TV which is used to promote the premier as well,” Kopane adds, explaining that the television station was allegedly involved in scamming a handful of residents of Rammolutsi and Viljoenskroon in 2010.

“Do you remember there was all this television coverage of Magashule handing people these houses that were filled with beautiful furniture? But the truth is that people never even got the chance to move into those homes,” she says.

As part of the launch of Operation Hlasela, Magashule arrived in Viljoenskroon pre-Christmas on a metaphorical white charger to save poor families from living in dilapidated houses. He flattened the rundown houses and everyone beamed for the TV cameras.

Six months later The Sowetan ran the story of destitute Viljoenskroon families who called Magashule’s promise of a new home a blatant lie. “After my house was destroyed, I had nowhere to go. Municipal officials took me and said I should occupy their offices as a temporary shelter,’ 65-year-old Lucy Mochochoko told The Sowetan. At the time she was sleeping with her son on the bench in the municipal offices. “During the day we have to make way for municipal employees to work. I don’t deserve to live like this,” the elderly woman said.

“What the premier is doing is to use state resources to boost his esteem and make it appear that he is someone who is working very hard, when this is not the case,” the DA’s Kopane tells Daily Maverick. “Along the way what he is also doing is creating business for his cronies and for his buddies,” she adds.

“The problem is that many of the tenders issued as part of Operation Hlasela never followed the correct procurement or tender procedures. That is why the Free State now has a website that costs R140 million but there are people in Rammolutsi who are still without houses or are using pit toilets. It is a disgrace,” she says.

“The system that has been created by the premier in the Free State is a monopoly. All the communication tenders go to one communications company really, and that is the group owned by Ntsele. The question is why aren’t other people offered the opportunity to bid on these projects at competitive prices?” Kopane asks.

“What the premier is doing is to create the biggest propaganda network that has existed in the history of South Africa’s democracy, and it is coming at a massive cost to the tax payer. This while there are so many people in the Free State who are unemployed and where so many households are dependent on grants. This is creating a system of dependencies instead of a robust democracy,” she states.

But in Rammolutsi people say enough is enough and that the ANC is enriching elites while the poor and the marginalised suffer. “As a community we are sick and tired of this corruption and the government here violating our constitutional rights, because they don’t even consult us when they make decisions about our lives. This is a democracy and there is a process that must be followed, but we are being ignored,” Sekete tells Daily Maverick.

Rammolutsi made the news in 2011 when an open toilet saga rocked both the DA in the Western Cape and the ANC in the Free State during the municipal elections. “Some of the toilets are now fixed, but we are still using pit toilets,” says Sekete. When we complain to the ANC ward councillor she says the people must just get Jeyes Fluid and pour it into the toilets. But how can poor and unemployed people, who are struggling to get enough food to eat for their families, do this?” Sekete asks.

The community leader says that Rammolutsi residents are receiving municipal bills for water, together with charges for sewerage systems and waste removal. “Why must people pay for the sewerage system when they are using the pit toilets? When the government hasn’t even installed a sewerage system? And here in Rammolutsi we haven’t even seen a tractor coming to fetch garbage, but we are expected to pay. This is clear robbery – that people are expected to pay for services that they are not even getting. They send people monthly accounts, but there is no one that is even coming to check the meters. The municipality checks one meter of one house, and then they send out the accounts. That is daylight robbery.”

Millions of rands for a site built from a $40 web template. A propaganda machine that encourages voluntary fundraising to prop up a premier’s ego, while municipalities under his watch are completely dysfunctional. A provincial communications manager who says to Daily Maverick “Moqhaka Municipality is not our responsibility, we’ve got nothing to say about that”, when the Free State office of the premier is asked for comment about people’s struggles in Rammolutsi. When you figure that all that money could buy way, way more than a thousand RDP houses, or be put into very good infrastructure and job creation, Daily Maverick must agree – it is absolute daylight robbery. DM

Read more:

  • Magashule tackled on corruption on IOL
  • Big firms get dragged into local delivery protests on BDLive


Photo: Ace Magashule at Mangaung conference (Greg Nicolson / Daily Maverick)


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