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The great Covid-19 swindle (Part Three): Johannesburg City Council – ‘It’s a free-for-all’

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In this series of four articles, we provide an update on our investigations into financial misconduct around fogging in several departments of the Gauteng Provincial Government and the Johannesburg city metro.

Read Part One and Part Two .

Up to now, most attention on Covid-19 related corruption has focused on the Gauteng Provincial Government. However, there is growing evidence that municipal officials also got in on the tender-fest created by the temporary relaxing of some regulations around procurement.  

The City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality, which has 40,000 employees and an annual budget of R70-billion, was one of them. According to councillor Leah Knott, the leader of the DA caucus in Johannesburg, “Skimming is easy on a big budget — you can get away with it — unlike in smaller municipalities, the city can still appear to run” even while it is being looted. “It’s a free-for-all,” she alleges.

Knott’s allegations don’t appear to be just party politicking. 

On 16 August 2020, an update given to the portfolio committee on Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs on the Auditor-General’s special report on Covid-19 expenditure recorded that in Gauteng’s municipalities, “Overall, municipal action plans were not adequate in addressing the Covid-19 findings raised by Agsa [Auditor-General of South Africa]. There are no indications that investigations will be conducted and furthermore, the action plans do not indicate consequence management to be taken against identified transgressors.” 

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) might well have made the same complaint. 

In June 2020, the SIU was called in to investigate allegations of Covid-19 related corruption within the council and the Johannesburg Property Company (JPC), the department responsible for all repairs and maintenance of buildings in the city, in particular. 

At present, according to Kaizer Kganyago, spokesperson for the SIU, there are “about six entities within the city under investigation”. The amount under investigation is nearly R470-million and, according to correspondence seen by Maverick Citizen, investigations are at an advanced stage and already have led to the referral of “several municipal officials to the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority] for contravention of the Municipal Finance Management Act”. 

At least one of the investigations is, “The Procurement of Deep Cleaning and Sanitation during the National State of Disaster”.  

The SIU’s City of Johannesburg fogging report has not yet been made public. However, its investigation resulted in findings of “financial misconduct” against several senior officials in the JPC, including against the CEO, Helen Botes, the CFO, Imraan Bhamjee, and three others.

On 31 March the SIU informed the council and the implicated officials of its findings in “referral letters” and proposed that they should be subject to individual disciplinary inquiries.

Six months later, there are concerns that these inquiries have barely started. Asked to confirm this, Nthatisi Modingoane, a spokesperson for the city, told us that: “The disciplinary processes against the JPC CEO and other officials have commenced. The City of Johannesburg appointed a firm of attorneys to assist the JPC board in prosecuting the recommendations of the SIU report. The firm is currently collating and analysing possible evidence and a senior counsel is also on board to work with the law firm.”

Reading between the lines, this seems like a long-winded way of saying they haven’t actually started.

Helen Botes is a name mentioned by several whistle-blowers we spoke to in connection with allegations of corruption. This week whistle-blowers told us that Botes, the suspended, unsuspended, suspended-again, and now unsuspended-again CEO was once more back at work. 

Questioned about this, Modingoane said, “The board had suspended the CEO for three months from 14 May 2021. The suspension period lapsed, and the CEO returned to the office on 16 August 2021. The return is in line with the Disciplinary Regulations for Senior Managers, dated April 2011. The CEO had previously been suspended by the board in June 2020. It should also be emphasised that the prolonged suspension of the CEO would be an unfair labour practice in terms of the Labour Relations Act.”

On the other four officials with SIU findings against them, Modingoane said: “The JPC concluded that it is in the interest of the entity for the officials to continue working. This is permissible in terms of the JPC Disciplinary Policy. The JPC did not suspend the other officials, pending the outcome of the work, being carried out, by the legal team.”

In this particular investigation, the SIU’s findings relate to the awarding of a contract to provide deep cleaning and sanitation services of nearly R25-million to four companies: KM Mashigo Trading CC, Omphile Turnkey & Solutions, Mizana Trading Pty Ltd and Triple SL Tech.  

Yet Knott claims the overall amount spent on fogging is far higher than R25-million. She says the JPC has spent up to R150-million on fogging – “even though the city insources and employs over 1,600 cleaners”. In one instance, “they paid seven different suppliers the same amount to fog the same place on the same day”, she alleges.

But the problem is not limited to the JPC, claims Knott. “At one point the Johannesburg Roads Agency were even fogging vehicles and car parks,” she says. “They bought bottles of sanitiser for R3,000. Every time there was a Covid case they would fog the building.” 

Questioned about this, Modingoane said the “JPC follows the supply chain management (SCM) process when contracting for services with a third party. This was also applicable to the procuring of the deep cleaning and sanitisation services… the City can confirm that R82-million has been spent over the two financial years for Covid-19 decontamination/deep cleaning services for all its seven regions. For the 2020 financial year, JPC spent R29,275,409 and R53,095,114 for 2021 financial year. This was spent on CoJ facilities including libraries, corporate buildings, multi-purpose centres to name a few.” 

“As such,” said Modingoane, “the figure by Cllr Knott is not correct.” DM/MC

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