South Africa

DAYS OF ZONDO

Role of Ace Magashule’s ex-secretary comes under scrutiny at inquiry

Archive Photo: Deputy chief justice Ray Zondo chairs the first day of the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture held in Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 August 2018. EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK

The Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture wrapped up witness testimonies for 2019 on Friday with an appearance from the former secretary of erstwhile Free State Premier, Ace Magashule.

Moroadi Cholota, the former secretary of the then Free State Premier, Ace Magashule delivered a shorter than usual testimony before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture on 6 December.

Cholota was summoned to appear before the commission after being singled out by the former MEC for Economic Development in the Free State, Mxolisi Dukwana as one of the staffers who were privy to Magashule’s allegedly shady dealings with slain businessman Ignatius “Igo” Mpambani.

The business involves a R255-million asbestos deal from the Free State housing department. It is alleged that Mpambani channeled money from his joint venture Blackhead-Diamond Hill to Magashule’s coffers and that of his other political allies.

Mpambani won a tender after making an unsolicited bid to the housing department to audit and replace asbestos houses in the province, and he was granted the multi-million rand contract alongside businessman, Edwin Sodi of Blackhead Consulting.

Dukwana previously testified that every time Mpambani’s company, Blackhead-Diamond Hill was paid out by the Free State housing department, Magashule’s staffers – Ipeleng Morake and Cholota – would inform the former premier.

Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s explosive book Gangster State follows a trail of emails sent between Cholota and Mpambani. In one of the emails, Cholota sent an email to Mpambani and mentioned banking details belonging to a Bloemfontein-based travel agency, Astra Travels.

This email coincided with a trip that Magashule had undertaken to Cuba with fellow officials from the province – a trip that would later emerge as being funded by taxpayer’s money.

The trip was undertaken during November 2015 and Mpambani received a R10-million payment on 28 January 2016 from the housing department, just two months after said trip. Some 40 minutes after the payment was made, Cholota sent the email with the travel agency’s banking details.

Cholota told the commission on Friday that there was nothing out of the ordinary for her to email businesspeople to solicit funds for activities that did not involve the premier’s office. She said the premier’s office would, from time to time, approach businesspeople to fund certain projects – especially those involving students – that the premier’s office or other departments could not finance.

What kind of groups were helped through this kind of arrangement?,” asked Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.

In most cases that I have dealt with, 80% is students, the rest would be artists or sportspeople requesting for funding,” Cholota replied.

Cholota said that Mpambani was not the only businessperson that was approached with such requests.

I had different people. I cannot say that there are specific people that I refer to because it is not fair that I can ask you something today, tomorrow and the third day. There were a number of businessmen and women that I could ask from,” Cholota told the commission.

Cholota was also probed about the premier’s “bursary scheme”. Dukwana also previously testified that the premier’s office had been known for issuing bursary funding to so-called “deserving students”. One such “bursary” was awarded to the daughter of then Bloemfontein and Johannesburg high court acting judge, Refiloe Mokoena.

Mokoena would later become head of legal at the South African Revenue Service.

Cholota sent an email to Mpambani: “Good day. This was the initial request [sent] to the Premier,” as written in Gangster State.

The email included another that had been sent by Mokoena, asking that Magashule assist in paying her daughter’s fees as she had been accepted at a university in the US. Mpambani would later make a payment of R51,000 at the time to the student account of Mokoena’s daughter.

In her statement, Cholota said the bursary was open to “needy students”, but would later change the meaning she attached to the word “needy” when writing her statement to mean any person or student who was in need – whether well-off or not – of the bursary, could approach the premier’s office.

How do you identify people that need to be funded?,” asked evidence leader Baitseng Rangata.

For me, if it comes to a push for you to go out and seek help, for me I would say you are in need of it,” Cholota replied.

So the scheme is not based on indigence, but is based on anybody who says – can you assist me? It doesn’t matter if my parents can pay or have the ability to pay for myself?,” asked Rangata.

If I receive a request and the person is explaining and provided the relevant attachments, to me that person is in need of that,” Cholota replied.

The commission will resume hearings on 13 January 2020. DM

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