The good news for taxpayers up in arms about the tens of millions paid out by the Free State provincial government for a new website, called Free State Online, is that there is to be an investigation of this reckless spending. The bad news is that this investigation will be conducted by the Free State government itself.
The web issue came up at a ‘Business Briefing’ hosted by The New Age in Bloemfontein on Wednesday 06 March 2013, which featured Premier Ace Magashule and nine of his MECs. Magashule said he’d look into the website matter to determine whether the millions used presented a value-for-money proposition.
Earlier, a report by The Sowetan stated that the Free State paid R140 million for the website, but the premier’s office declared this to be “only” R40 million. At the breakfast, Olley Mlamleli, the province’s co-operative governance MEC, said the Free State had spent a further R47.8 million “re-engineering” 38 other websites for the provincial government.
The R40-million web wonder (built mostly with cheap or free software and hosted by state IT agency Sita), sports stories of the benevolent premier dashing around his province handing out furnished houses to the elderly and infirm. “The premier of the Free State, Ace Magashule, has donated a furnished house to a 92-year-old woman who was sharing two shacks in her yard with 21 people, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” one story reads.
“The visibly overwhelmed and shocked Martha Nomandla entered her new 60 square metre (m²) house for the first time on Monday afternoon, during the official handover of the house that was built by the provincial government in the newly developed area of Gelukwaarts, Kroonstad,” continued a piece datelined 27 November 2012.
Residents of Zuma Park in Kroonstad were just as delighted when they heard that Magashule’s RDP platform was coming to their neck of the woods to deliver new houses in September 2010. But instead of bringing happiness, it appears that the housing project has brought disappointment and heartache.
Two-and-a-half years after moving into his home, Poho Molebatsi sits and watches the walls of the RDP house crack open because of the problematic foundation. “The walls of my house are breaking. Even the windows are breaking because there is such a big problem with the foundations,” Molebatsi says on the phone from Zuma Park in Kroonstad. “There is a problem with the geyser and we can’t access water inside the house. If you turn on the tap the water sprays all over the house. There are so many problems with this house,” he says.
Molebatsi has been trying for over two years to get these problems fixed, but every time he goes to the Moqhaka Local Municipality he gets no joy. “This is an Operation Hlasela RDP house, and we go to the municipality to report the problems, but until now they have done nothing. They do not even come to look at the house. We got this house in May 2011 and we go to the municipality many times to complain but they don’t want to listen to us. It is such a bitter disappointment. No one will help me,” he says.
The problems began when Magashule’s Operation Hlasela rolled into Kroonstad and rode roughshod over local municipal procedures in the process of building these houses. Grace Wille, the DA ward councillor for Moqhaka, tells Daily Maverick that when the project started, no plans were handed to the local municipality. “You have to hand plans in at the housing department and only then the municipality gives you the go-ahead to build houses,” says Wille. “Ace Magashule went over everyone’s head and just built the houses saying that this was a provincial initiative, not a local initiative.”
Strangely enough, the contractors engaged by the provincial government both built the houses, and inspected the houses themselves. This is contrary to the municipal dictate which stipulates that the RDP houses should have been vetted by local government inspectors. “The Moqhaka Municipality has its own inspectors at the housing department who are supposed to go and check the houses, to see if they were properly built. But Operation Hlasela didn’t work that way – it completely bypassed the municipal governance systems,” the ward councillor says.
“When an RDP house is finished being built, the residents who are to move in should give the contractors what we call a ‘happy letter’. This means that the new home owners are satisfied with the houses, but this didn’t happen in the case of Operation Hlasela,” she adds. “The contractors gave the people the keys for the houses and told the people of Zuma Park to move in urgently. They said if the people didn’t move in, that others would come and steal the fittings or building material that was used for the houses,” Wille says.
Consequently, there are massive problems with the houses that were built in Zuma Park, an area Magashule named after President Zuma. The local government points its fingers at the provincial government, which just does the same in return. The contractors, needless to say, received their money and are long gone.
Daily Maverick has a list of the individual houses with issues (there are well over fifty) and has phoned several RDP home owners, who say they are fed up. At one house the water pipes and geyser never worked; at another no circuit breakers were installed, presenting a safety hazard; there’s a home where no geyser was even installed; and another that has an open roof.
The litany of errors continues. Johannes Tsholonyane has no taps, sink or geyser in his RDP house; Patricia Louw’s water pipes are broken and the roof is caving in; when Moleboheng Rantso switches the geyser on, all the water from the appliance floods the floor; the plumbing in Ntsioa Khaile’s house wasn’t completed and the toilet isn’t connected to a sewerage system. And so the list continues.
The problem is compounded by the fact that neither the local nor provincial government will take responsibility for the mess.
“If the people go to the municipality they say it is the provincial government’s problem. The MEC did send an inspector here but nothing has been done since the people moved into the houses in 2011. The province hasn’t done a thing and it is clear that nobody is interested in this issue – nobody wants to help us,” the ward councillor says.
As if the houses aren’t headache enough, the roads in Zuma Park cause distress too, because the infrastructure for the area wasn’t built to standard.
“When the roads were created, the storm water drains were built too small, so what happens now is each time it rains the water collects and the people’s houses are flooded. The provincial government let the contractors off scot-free and now these people must sit with this disaster while nobody will listen to their problems,” says Wille.
In the early days of Operation Hlasela, Magashule waxed lyrical about how this development project was going to change the Free State forever. In February 2010, during his state of the province address, Magashule evoked the spirit of Agostinho Neto by quoting the Angolan President and poet: “The most important thing is to solve the problems of the people,” Magashule told the crowd at UFS (then Vista University) in Mangaung.
“We launched Operation Hlasela in pursuit of our efforts to solve the problems of our people. We did so precisely because we understood that in solving the problems of our people we must attack poverty, homelessness, unemployment, crime and all other social ills affecting our people,” said Magashule at the time.
The premier said his vision for Operation Hlasela was based on an ANC election manifesto that focused on mass mobilisation, intervention, collaboration and partnership to fulfil the notion of “working together we can do more”. But the single biggest benefit that Operation Hlasela appears to have brought is to Magashule himself, and those who have benefited from tenders associated with the project.
The Public Protector is currently finalising her investigation into Operation Hlasela and her report is due end March 2013, but what Daily Maverick knows is that the scheme has seen all communications funnelled to the premier’s office, where it works as a massive propaganda machine to buoy his reputation.
Besides a series of multi-million rand websites, Operation Hlasela sports its own television station, which you could have caught sight of if you’ve ever flown into Bram Fischer International Airport, where a multitude of screens show Magashule-friendly broadcasts. Also coming soon are a series of community radio stations and “continuous content development, and updating, and broadcasting of news and activities”.
No expense is being spared to ensure that Magashule’s reputation remains solid and intact, while the RDP houses crumble in Zuma Park near Kroonstad. DM
Photo: Ace Magashule at the 53rd conference. Mangaung 17 December 2012. (Greg Marinovich / Newsfire)
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