David Mahlobo’s political legacy has been slippery as an eel in bucketful of soap

David Mahlobo’s political legacy has been slippery as an eel in bucketful of soap
Deputy Minister of Water and Sanitation David Mahlobo, at the Water Services Authority Summit on Blue, Green and No Drop reports on Day 1 at Emperors Palace on 18 January, 2024 in Kempton Park, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images/OJ Koloti)

A look at the life and crimes of the deputy minister of water and sanitation, who is number 13 on the ANC’s election list despite having been red-flagged by the party’s Integrity Commission. 

In May 2014, Mbangiseni David Mahlobo was catapulted from Mpumalanga’s cooperative governance and traditional affairs department into the hottest seat in the country as minister of state security.

He was 42 at the time, had studied biochemistry and had also worked in the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. Former president Jacob Zuma appointed Mahlobo, who went on to serve Msholozi personally through the peak years of State Capture.

By the time Mahlobo was summoned to testify at the Zondo Commission, he had already been accused, alongside State Security Agency (SSA) head Arthur Fraser, of participating in the development of a shadow state.

Pivotal moments in Zuma’s capture of the levers of power included issuing an unconstitutional proclamation collapsing the country’s intelligence services into one, as well as halting an investigation into the Gupta family by his earlier spy chiefs.

After these changes, members of the SSA had to swear allegiance to Zuma personally, as well as recognise the authority of the minister of state security.

Before this, employees had taken an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the agency itself.

Under Zuma there was a doctrinal shift from national security to state security, resulting in the SSA’s involvement in the political activities of the ANC.

In his June 2022 report, Chief Justice Raymond Zondo said that “the evidence suggests that this commission may not in fact have been necessary if the SSA detected, fully investigated and countered State Capture as a threat to our constitutional order when the symptoms first appeared”.

Evidence against Mahlobo was ‘overwhelming’

The Zondo Commission also found that the weight of evidence of Mahlobo’s involvement in moving “huge” amounts of cash “is overwhelming” and that this outlay was “fast and loose, as was the frequent blurring of lines between projects”.

Mahlobo, on the evidence before the commission, said Zondo, not only involved himself in operations but also directed them.

“The commission finds therefore that Mr Mahlobo did indeed involve himself in operational matters at the SSA, and further that large amounts of cash were delivered to him on several occasions.”

Since Mahlobo had denied receiving the cash, “as testified to by a number of witnesses”, then, “if it were to be established in a court that large amounts of cash were given to Mr Mahlobo, it would mean that he stole the money”.

Preliminary analysis of evidence given about the SSA, said Zondo in his report, indicated “gross non-compliance with operational and financial directives, especially in the establishment of covert projects and the creation of special-purpose vehicles to siphon funds”.

This cost the state about R1.5-billion between 2012 and 2018.

The High-Level Review Panel on the State Security Agency, appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in June 2018 and chaired by his current security adviser, Sydney Mufamadi, also found enough information implicating Mahlobo.

“There was more than enough information before the panel that the then minister [of state security], in particular, involved himself directly in [SSA] operations,” the panel noted.

It reported that it had interviewed a member of the SSA “who had previously served in the minister’s office during his time as minister of state security, who confirmed to the panel that he had, from time to time, been asked by a member of SO [special operations] to pass parcels containing cash to the minister”.

Radical transparency

Writing for the non-profit organisation Corruption Watch, Professor Jane Duncan noted that the Zondo report was “a globally significant example of radical transparency around intelligence abuses”.

However, it lacked the detailed findings and recommendations to enable speedy prosecutions, she added.

It also failed to address the “broader threats to democracy posed by unaccountable intelligence”, she said.

Duncan was also a member of the review panel.

Mahlobo was alleged to have signed receipts for about R80-million in cash from the SSA between 2015 and 2017. He has denied that he personally received payments or authorised projects.

Another slippery eel is the former head of the special operations unit, Thulani Dlomo, who is also still footloose and fancy-free.

‘There is no paper trail’

Mahlobo told the Zondo Commission that the only time he had intervened in the operations of the SSA was when the budgets appeared to be “out of control”.

He said official records of the secret service account did not reflect the true nature of the operations, which were only known to the project manager and the team of assets because all projects took place on a “need-to-know basis”.

Asked at the time by evidence leader advocate Paul Pretorius whether there were any documents at all that reflected the “true operations”, Mahlobo kicked the can down the road to the SSA’s then accounting officer, who would have been Fraser, to perhaps deal with later, or never at all.

“You are not saying they have been falsified. You are saying the full detail would not be reflected in the official records?” probed Pretorius.

“There is no evidence, no paper trail,” Mahlobo replied.

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Still on the lists

Now, in spite of being red-flagged by the ANC’s Integrity Commission, Mahlobo has made it to the party’s election list, alongside faithful Zuma minions such as erstwhile minister of home affairs and of finance, Malusi Gigaba, and former deputy minister of state security Zizi Kodwa.

Mahlobo came in at a lucky number 13, whereas Kodwa is at 25 and Gigaba at 27.

Cedric Frolick MP, who served as National Assembly House chair for committees from 2014 to 2019 and was fingered in the Bosasa corruption matter, was dropped.

The senior comrades had not yet appeared before the Integrity Commission and the party said that none had yet been charged, so the “step aside” rule still applied.

So there they are.

Friends with benefits

In 2016, Mahlobo was photographed at a Mbombela massage parlour and spa owned by confessed criminal Guan Jian Guang.

Guang, in an Al Jazeera documentary, “The Poachers Pipeline”, confessed to bribing South African justice and immigration officials and that he was closely associated with Mahlobo, who was in fact a home guest.

Mahlobo at the time threatened to bring a defamation case against Al Jazeera, but it appears these threats were idle.

A purported investigation by Berning Ntlemeza, then the head of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks), of course came to naught.

It was also Mahlobo who brought news to Zuma that his wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli Zuma, had tried to poison him. As a result, she was banished with their children from Nkandla.

The National Prosecuting Authority later found no evidence of the alleged attempted murder of the country’s leader and refused to prosecute Zuma’s ex-wife.

Infiltration of civil society

Duncan said that a shortcoming in the Zondo Commission had been infiltration and surveillance of civil society, and the SSA’s broader threat to democracy.

Mahlobo is currently the deputy minister of water and sanitation, and continues to show his face around the country without fear or shame.

He is a self-confessed Russophile who has travelled often to Putin’s dreamland.

However, the recent arrest of speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula on charges of money laundering and corruption should send a chill up what remains of Mahlobo’s spine.

Meanwhile, there he is, high up on the “renewed” ANC’s party list. DM


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