Polokwane - When the premier of Limpopo province gave his
state of the province speech this month, he announced that his region led the
nation in good financial record keeping.
It left some in his audience blinking in disbelief.
Was he talking about the same platinum- and coal-producing
northern province that is the target of corruption probes by a posse of law
enforcement agencies after being declared "technically bankrupt" by
the National Treasury?
ANC critics and supporters alike have denounced what they
call the wholescale "looting" of public resources in Limpopo by a
group of politicians led by provincial premier Cassel Mathale and his friend
and ally, outspoken ANC Youth League rebel Julius Malema.
Both deny any wrongdoing, but Malema, who has his political
powerbase in the province, faces suspension from the ANC for indiscipline.
The outcry over Limpopo shines an unforgiving spotlight on a
cancer that many see corroding almost every layer of government in South Africa
under ANC rule, 18 years after Nelson Mandela's liberation movement took power
in a glow of international goodwill after the end of apartheid.
The graft and governance scandals threaten to undermine the
ambitions of Africa's biggest economy to rub shoulders on equal terms with
fellow Brics Brazil, Russia, India and China, to attract investors and to speak
for Africa on the world stage.
"The problem of Limpopo is the problem of how the ANC
governs," said Sisonke Msimang, executive director of the Open Society
Initiative for Southern Africa (Osisa), one of network of pro-democracy
foundations created globally by billionaire investor and philanthropist George
Limpopo is "a bit of a test case for the ANC",
said David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, an anti-graft
watchdog set up in January with the backing of trade union federation Cosatu,
an ally of the ANC.
Five key departments of Mathale's provincial administration
were taken over by President Jacob Zuma's central government in December.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said Limpopo had spent far beyond its means to
open up a potential financial shortfall of R2bn. A harshly-worded ministerial
report cited "possible illegal payments" to service providers.
The National Treasury said it found hundreds of millions of
rands of "unauthorised and irregular" spending in Limpopo. Schools in
the province started the year without basic textbooks and local hospitals went
short of basic supplies and medicines.
"Corruption is growing like a wildfire in the veld,
threatening to engulf and destroy the future of a country that has so much
potential," Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said at the January
26 launch of Corruption Watch.
All eyes are now on law enforcement authorities and judiciary,
and on the ANC, to see how they handle the complaints against Mathale and his
Limpopo administration, and whether prosecutions will follow.
A spokesperson for the special police investigation unit the
Hawks said inquiries were under way into allegations of corruption and business
irregularities against Mathale, his wife and his friend Malema. He declined to
give more details.
Probes into Limpopo's finances are also being conducted by
the South African Revenue Service and the public protector.
But if Limpopo premier Mathale is worried about the widening
investigations, he is not showing it.
After his February 16 speech, he responded to media reports
about dodgy contract tenders and waste by his government with a breezy phrase
in Afrikaans "Jy lieg soos 'n koerant" (You are lying like a
"Limpopo is not falling apart," said provincial
government spokesperson Tebatso Mabitsela, adding that media versions about
corruption in Limpopo were "riddled with fictions".
But some say Limpopo's management mess is symptomatic of a
wider deterioration in government in South Africa.
"It seems to me what we are finding are more and more
indications of fairly extensive system collapse," said Glen Steyn, a
development economist who works in Polokwane.
The government has also intervened in Johannesburg's health
sector and in sectors of Free State province.
Steyn said the problem appears most acute at the level of
municipalities, which increasingly lack qualified engineers or financial
officers. "It's not just management of budgets at stake, but also their
ability to do what municipalities do, giving water to communities, fixing up
roads," he said.
"Tip of the iceberg"
Cosatu sees Limpopo's problems as "just the tip of the
iceberg", saying government intervention there proved "the looting of
the country's wealth is becoming endemic in South Africa".
A former head of the justice department's Special
Investigating Unit (SIU) estimates the government loses about R30bn to
corruption every year.
Most experts believe the real figure is much higher in a
country where 2012 spending is expected to top one trillion rand and whose
relative wealth - although unequally distributed - stands out on the world's
In Berlin-based Transparency International's gauge of
perceived corruption, South Africa has slid negatively in the ranking from 38th
in the world in 2001 to 64th in 2011.
Peter Attard Montalto, emerging market economist at Nomura
International, sees the practice of cadre deployment in South Africa -
assignment of positions by the ANC on the basis of party loyalty and standing,
rather than on competence - as a major factor behind growing local governance
"Politicians are not kept in check by independently
minded, competent technocrats," he said in a research note.
Denunciations of graft in South Africa focus on allocation
of government tenders, ranging from multi-billion rand infrastructure and
public works projects to supplies of books and stationery to schools and food
and equipment to hospitals.
Such is the perceived prevalence of irregular tenders in
South Africa, the term "tenderpreneurs" was coined to denote a whole
class of politically-connected businessmen who have made fortunes under ANC
rule since the end of apartheid.
Limpopo seethes with talk about crooked tenders: contracts
awarded without competitive bids, often illogically without regard to price or
technical competence, and involving business or family networks linked to
politicians in power.
"It's always the same people and if you look, they are
the ones around the premier and Malema," said Limpopo DA leader Desiree
van der Walt. "As a citizen of this beautiful province, it's not nice to
hear you're actually run by mafias."
Supporters of Mathale and Malema have portrayed the Zuma
government's intervention as a witchhunt aimed at punishing party figures who
have supported replacing Zuma as party head at the next ANC leadership
conference due in Mangaung in December.
"You have to understand, what is happening here in
Limpopo has the Mangaung elective conference stamped all over it," said
one ANC insider in Polokwane, who asked not to be named.
Malema, who faces a five-year expulsion from the ANC for
violating its rules and sowing division, has kept up a campaign of defiance
against Zuma, frequently mocking him in public.
The provincial ANC and youth league branches have questioned
the motives behind the intervention in Limpopo, suggesting Mathale and Malema
were targeted for their anti-Zuma stance.
But the local branch of the South African Communist Party
(SACP), a traditional partner in the ruling ANC alliance, dismissed these
suggestions as "fabrication". It said their aim was to try to defend
"corruption and cronyism".
"It's one thing for the ANC to have internal battles
and for somebody to go rogue within the party. It's another thing for that to
have a direct impact on how a province is governed," Osisa's Msimang told
Corruption Watch's Lewis said public sensitivity to graft is
growing. "If you live in a small town and you see the mayor go from a VW
Polo to a BMW 7 series in two years of his mayoralty, you know there is
something wrong," he said.
In the week leading up to Mathale's speech, Polokwane's
normally tranquil city centre saw a flurry of anti-corruption protests calling
for the ANC provincial premier to quit.
These came not just from the opposition DA, but also from
traditional ANC allies, and even from the movement's own ranks.
Camouflage-clad anti-apartheid veterans of the ANC's now
disbanded Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) military wing marched to local party offices
and performed the high-stepping toyi-toyi protest dance to demand the removal
of Mathale and his cronies.
"These comrades are not comrades," local MK
veterans' association chairperson Teenage Monama said.
Simon Mathe, provincial secretary for Limpopo of the South
African Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu), said: "Once you have the MK
Veterans Association marching against the premier of the province, then you
have a serious political problem."
Samwu is calling for the central government to take over the
running of failing local municipalities too.
"This is clear wrongdoing, we have no doubt about it.
We can't tolerate it in a democratic South Africa," Mathe said, smacking
his hand on a thick folder in his office in Polokwane he said contains evidence
of illegality in municipal tenders.
Can the rot be stopped?
Many in South Africa still believe the institutions exist in
the country to check and roll back corruption.
"You need a good constitutional order: we've got one.
You need a relatively independent judiciary: we've got one. You need a strong
media: we've got one," said Corruption Watch's Lewis.
But he said his organisation has been receiving complaints
about the judiciary. "Obviously, if you have a rotten justice system...
you're not really going to get anywhere."
The ANC's track record for putting its own house in order on
corruption remains compromised by an unresolved arms deal scandal that has
festered for more than a decade, casting its shadow over both Zuma and former
president Thabo Mbeki.
They have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Zuma escaped graft allegations when prosecutors dropped
charges relating to the R30bn deal to buy European military equipment in the
1990s. But he has never quite shaken off perceptions of impropriety over an
arms transaction that saw his financial adviser jailed.
The president has ordered a new inquiry into the arms deal
"That's the biggest danger ... that the message that
comes through is that it's OK (to be corrupt)," Steyn said.