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Humphrey Mmemezi: Have you any shame, sir?

Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them.

Humphrey Mmemezi's struggle credentials seem impeccable. He rose from a tea plantation worker to Gauteng housing and local government MEC. But somewhere, something went wrong. Suddenly he started thinking he was entitled to say what he liked and buy what he liked – with our money. By ALEX ELISEEV

Humphrey Mmemezi has been raging against a series of damning articles about his alleged reckless spending of taxpayers’ money. 

Standing at some low-key launch, wearing a hard hat, he spat venom at the cameras, repeating things like “I’m angry”, “this annoys me”, “what a joke” and “I’m being forced to talk about petty issues.” 

Mmemezi whipped out the “conspiracy card”, claiming some dark forces were out to get him because he was investigating them for massive fraud. As expected, the Gauteng housing and local government MEC offered no further explanation. 

He then went on to show outrageous arrogance by asking why he was being accused of a crime for merely buying a painting for his office. 

“Am I such a bad MEC that I must not have a painting in the office?” he vented. “Is it a crime to buy an artistic work?” 

Perhaps we should rewind to the beginning. Mmemezi’s troubles began when The Star published an excellent series of exposés about his irregular (to use a kind word) spending on his state-owned credit card. 

First, the MEC was accused of blowing R10,000 on a painting, which he bought from a McDonald’s outlet. Not from an art gallery, a fast food joint. Worse, he allegedly disguised the purchase by pretending to buy R10,000 worth of burgers. 

Then came the alleged spending spree in India, worth about R60,000. This went into shoes, clothes and “party wear”. Exactly what “party wear” is remains a mystery, but before your mind wanders, let’s move on. 

Mmemezi was also slammed for spending thousands of rand on hotels in Johannesburg, Midrand and Pretoria, with at least one of these located less than 5km from his house. Some of these stays cost as little as R400 a night, but that’s not really the issue. As with the notorious Cargate debacle, just because the rulebook says you can buy a luxury car, and just because other cars can cost a lot more, doesn’t make it ethical or right. It also turned out Mmemezi used his card to buy a few thousand rands worth of groceries. 

But the perfect storm was not yet complete. The MEC was also caught in a scandal over an accident he had in his government-issued BMW X5 while apparently on a family trip in KwaZulu-Natal. He claimed the car suffered only minor dents, but the newspaper dug up a memorandum to say the vehicle was being sold off because of the damage. Insurance had allegedly refused to pay out because no accident report was submitted. 

The accident happened during the same month a car linked to Mmemezi was involved in knocking down a teenage boy from Krugersdorp. Thomas Ferreira suffered brain damage and emerged from his coma not long ago.  

Gauteng Premier, Nomvula Mokonyane, first offered to pay Ferreira’s medical bills but had a change of heart once it was time to crunch the numbers. The matter was passed off to the Road Accident Fund, which eventually paid out R870,000 to the family. Ferreira continues his recovery and the bills are likely to keep pouring in. 

Mmemezi was gagged by Mokonyane from speaking about this accident. The fact that he – a father of eight – could remain silent while a young boy battled for his life was either a stunning effort to obey orders or a sign that he was unwilling to climb down from his German-engineered horse.  

When the credit card mess emerged, Mmemezi didn’t take his foot off the pedal. He reportedly launched a witch-hunt for those who leaked the information and missed a deadline to submit a report into the saga. 

He’s now due to answer the allegations at an ANC integrity committee as well as a provincial government one. Mokonyane is also sitting on a report and has promised to make an announcement in “due course”. (Let’s hope she moves faster than the president in reading and acting on reports.) 

With all of that, you’d think a seasoned politician would know better than to try and shout down the allegations against him.  

By Mmemezi’s reasoning, a murder should not be treated as a serious offence because somewhere else in the world people are being slaughtered in acts of genocide. Just because the painting cost R10,000 and not R1.7-billion, as was the case with former police chief Bheki Cele’s blunder, doesn’t mean the MEC can avoid answering for it. 

No one has said his plush office can’t be lined with the finest artworks, just as long as they are purchased through the right channels. Tender laws may not apply, but surely politicians should not be at liberty to spend our money on a whim while scoffing down a Big Mac. 

One of the stories I broke while working for The Star a few years ago was a dodgy purchase of a Mercedes-Benz by then MEC for agriculture, conservation and environment Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko. 

The car was bought for almost R1-million and was never insured. It was kept at her home and hijacked less than 24 hours after it was bought. The loss of the vehicle – which was being driven by her husband – amounted to the taxpayer losing R1-million. Had she gone through the right channels in buying the car, Nkomo-Ralehoko may still be in her position. As it turned out, the premier axed her the same week our report came out. 

Nkomo-Ralehoko never gave press conferences to scream and shout that as an MEC she was entitled to have a state-owned car. She knew the purchase stank, taxpayers’ money was flushed down the toilet and her credibility was wounded. 

(Not so surprisingly, Nkomo-Ralehoko today serves as portfolio committee chair at the Gauteng provincial legislature and ironically, but not unexpectedly, she chairs the roads and transport committee.)

If the bells are still not ringing, Mmemezi can cast an eye to Pretoria, where President Jacob Zuma has just fired Bheki Cele. The hat-loving general was “released from his duties” in connection with two leases he signed for new police headquarters. There’s no evidence Cele received bribes or benefited in any way. His crime was gross and unforgivable maladministration. 

In Mmemezi’s realm, this amounts to not checking whether the painting was actually needed, whether it could be bought cheaper and if those who sold it were not abusing their political connections. Not that politics played a role in the McDonald’s deal, but you get the point. 

Aside from his role as MEC, Mmemezi is also the ANC’s provincial deputy secretary. If you read his official biography, you get a sense of a man who worked his way up from a tea plantation, through the unions and into the political pound seat. His struggle credentials appear to be solid. 

But his actions over the past few months and his latest comments threaten to unravel his legacy – just like the late minister of corporate governance and traditional affairs, Sicelo Shiceka, who was fired for his shocking waste of public money, including travelling abroad to visit a girlfriend in jail or building roads near his rural home. Shiceka too was arrogant. He fobbed off questions and claimed he was spending his suspension playing tennis. 

In fact, until the bitter end, Jackie Selebi – the former national police commissioner sent to jail for corruption – claimed his hands were clean. Both he and his successor, Cele, were good at making noise, playing the conspiracy card and trying to drown out the real issues with rhetoric. 

The truth, Mr Mmemezi, is that you have a great deal to answer for. These are not “petty issues” but matters that slice right to the heart of good governance. They are the soul of leadership. Just because you have access to the credit card, doesn’t mean you can use it as you like. In case you’ve forgotten, the money belongs to us. Not to you. And your calling this a joke is nothing less than an insult.  

So instead of being angry and putting on a show, defend yourself with facts. If no wrongdoing is found, you will taste sublime vindication. But if the allegations are true you should either be fired or follow Cele, who today announced he’s ready to “shut up and go home quietly”. In the meantime, perhaps you summon some decency? DM


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