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Mvula Trust: The inconvenient questions

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.

When an organisation like Corruption Watch raises a red flag about a R30-million tender designed to help create jobs, government should slam on the breaks and take a long, hard look under the bonnet. But instead, the revelations have been met with an eerie silence. Why?

It may not be as sexy as Nkandlagate or as emotive as e-tolling, but the scandal around the Mvula Trust tender cuts to the heart of one of South Africa’s greatest battles.

It’s a project which sets out to create jobs, in this case around 70,000 of them. They may not be full-time or particularly well paid, but they are significant for those living in poor or rural areas. They’re a chance to earn a wage two or three times a week while serving the community.

Unemployment is one of the three major focus areas in South Africa’s current narrative, with the fate of 14,000 Amplats miners still in the balance. The others are poverty and inequality.

Working together, Daily Maverick and Eyewitness News have exposed something rotten in the way Mvula Trust won the tender to help channel hundreds of millions of rands in wages from the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) to those doing the work.

Corruption Watch spent four months looking at the deal and wrote to CoGTA urging for an investigation to take place. A police case was opened by a trustee who resigned after it emerged that a Mvula trustee was also the owner of a company, Ubuntu Sima, sub-contracted to take care of a large chunk of the project. Just last week we read about the billions government spends on contractors to do work it should be doing itself. In some cases, contractors are hired to monitor other contractors.

The Mvula Trust admits other trustees have been doing business with the organisation for the past decade and that it’s been forced to tighten its rules to close the loopholes. The man leading Mvula, CEO Silas Mbedzi, was fired from his previous government job but remains in command of one of the country’s leading NGOs. (He’s challenging his axing in court and claims he was fired for exposing corruption).

What is not being disputed is that at least four trustees and three staff members left Mvula after the tender was awarded. They claim the trust is being “kidnapped” by those who want to use it to make money. The exodus has been defined along racial lines, with Mbedzi saying the trustees were “unable to work with blacks” and had overstayed their welcome. Those who resigned say it was a protest against a “spider’s web” of shady business connections. Whatever the case, valuable skills have been lost to the detriment of the programmes being managed by Mvula.

Detailed questions were sent to the trust, CoGTA, Ubuntu Sima and Rejoice Mabudafhasi, the chairperson of the trust under who’s watch this all happened. Mvula provided a comprehensive response, denying any wrongdoing. The others are yet to speak out, a week after being approached.

While we wait, these are some of the questions which must be answered:

  • By its own admission, Mvula Trust has been doing business with its trustees for years with little oversight. How was this allowed to happen?
  • Was there any fraud or corruption in the R30-million Community Work Programme (CWP) tender?
  • Did Mvula or Ubuntu Sima know about the tender before it was made public?
  • It appears Mvula Trust and Ubuntu Sima decided to work together behind the scenes and only formalised the partnership after the tender was awarded. Why did they not make their intensions clear from the start?
  • When was Ubuntu Sima formed, and was it set up purely to facilitate this deal?
  • What experience does Ubuntu Sima have, and does it meet all the relevant requirements for a project of this magnitude?
  • Were other companies considered along with Ubuntu Sima and if so, why was it chosen over them?
  • Did the relationship between Mvula Trust and Ubuntu Sima at one point deteriorate to the brink of legal action and did the trust cave in?
  • How much of the R30-million “lead agent” fee has been spent and how was it divided between Mvula, Ubuntu Sima and other implementing agents?
  • Has CoGTA taken any action after receiving Corruption Watch’s report?
  • Considering the allegations against him, why was Silas Mbedzi chosen as acting CEO of the trust after the departure of Phakamani Buthulezi?
  • If trustees doing business with Mvula was so common, why did four senior trustees and three staff members resign after this conflict of interest was exposed?
  • Why did one of them consider it his duty to open a police case and thereby launch a criminal investigation into the tender?
  • Can anyone in government be held responsible for the awarding of a tender which, Corruption Watch says, could be invalid?
  • If Mvula Trust was awarded the role of “lead agent” and paid for this service, why did it give away 80% of the work to Ubuntu Sima and other agents?
  • How much has been paid in wages so far and how much will be paid by the time the tender draws to a close next year?
  • Has this scandal affected the project in any way?

Until all these questions are answered, we will not be able to move on from this story. New tip-offs have already come in, and more investigation will be done. Too much is at stake. DM


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