In the trenches of the corruption

Sometimes things come to us via a detour. And sometimes it takes a while before you understand what these things are. When B. calls me from the Netherlands in early 2015, asking if I still remember such-and-such a friend from the anti-apartheid movement, a fellow activist from Amsterdam, I start reminiscing about the good old days, only to find that he is not in the mood. “He says somebody got killed. A comrade from Port Elizabeth.”

It’s about Mark-Anthony Williams, a comrade who is currently deputy director – or was – at the Ministry of Water Affairs. “The police say it was a burglary, but his wife and friends do not believe that,” continues B. “They say it has to do with corruption.”

Whoever still believes that corruption is just a matter of self-enrichment – “a kind of tax,” as Bill Gates calls it – must wake from that dream. In South Africa, Africa’s richest country, people have long been eliminated for standing in the way of corrupt business. And now that the state coffers are within reach of many more people-with-political connections than before, it has become worse. Even in the poorest townships and rural areas there are deathly fights for municipal jobs and contracts. The Mail & Guardian documented 26 murders of local politicians over 2016 alone.  Whistleblowers are more at risk than anyone else.

Mark-Anthony used to call out corruption, says a close co-worker with whom I make contact, again via Amsterdam: Mark-Anthony’s widow Emelia passed the details to the Dutch friend, he called B. and B. called me. “He opposed contracts that were concluded with companies that did not have any water expertise at all, but were run by friends of highly placed people. He used to fight with those who were in favour of such deals. It came to an explosive confrontation at a meeting in Centurion. One week after that meeting he was dead.”

“Here they are,” Mark-Anthony had said to his wife that night when burglars broke the front door down. Emelia, friends and colleagues all say that he had been aware that ‘they’ were after him. At the office, he had been working in the window-free meeting room. “Here they can’t shoot me,” he had told the colleague who asked. The colleague had wondered if he was paranoid. She knew that Mark-Anthony was getting people’s backs up, but surely to think that they’d shoot him was a bit much?

The burglars had entered Mark-Anthony’s study room where he was at work. There were shots. Emelia had run to the bathroom with the children and closed the door. Afterwards, the burglars had remained in the study room for some time. They had left with his laptop, a television and nothing else. “It was as though they were taking the TV to make it look like a burglary,” a relative told reporters later. They had still taken the time to scan Mark-Anthony’s briefcase: some documents were found spread out on the floor. “They were looking for something they could not find,” said the relative.

Water Affairs, Pretoria, April 2015

The colleagues at the Ministry of Water Affairs also suspect that “someone” was searching for Mark-Anthony’s documents. His office was sealed by security guards during Christmas; secretary Riana had still not been allowed to enter even after the holiday. “The head of security said nobody was allowed to get at the papers,” she says when I visit the department.

‘Five contracts all go to companies favoured by our political bosses’

She has no idea what papers were so sensitive. The three colleagues whom Riana introduces me to and with whom I speak – always with the door closed, in their small offices on this gray, poorly lit, passage in a gray government building in Pretoria – don’t know either. At least not exactly. “There are five contracts going on for dam projects throughout the country. They all go to companies that are favoured by our political bosses. So not necessarily the companies that are best at building dams,” says one of the colleagues, an engineer. “Mark-Anthony could have had fights about any one of these projects. But it could also have been about the project in Lepelle.”

He explains that Lepelle is a three billion rand (about 200 million US$) water and sewage project in northern Limpopo province. The contract had been concluded with a small, relatively unknown engineering company, LTE, in 2014. “The CEO of LTE, Thulani Majola, is a good friend of the Minister of Water Affairs. The company was recently in the news because the chairman of the board resigned. He said he did not want anything to do with “irregular contracts.” The engineer hands me a copy of a newspaper cutout on the affair.

Asogan Pillay, chairman of the board of LTE, had not even asked for water contracts, the newspaper article says. His company got the deal irregularly, apparently via CEO Majola. A few days after Asogan Pillay had publicly asked questions about it, armed robbers had burgled his house. There had been no victims, but a few days later, Pillay had resigned as chairman of LTE. All this had happened in the first half of December 2014; not even two weeks before the murder of Mark-Anthony Williams.

Auckland Park, May 2017

Whether the Minister of Water Affairs, Zuma loyalist Nomvula Monkonyane, knows what will happen if dams in this water-scarce country are built badly or not at all? “Sure, she should know,” says City Press journalist Sipho Masondo, who published the Lepelle story in April 2016, after his sources in Limpopo had made him aware of it. “We are not talking about illiterate politicians here. They are clever enough to know that thirst, famine and mortality are real dangers. But big money bags tend to affect the judgment of people. It’s denial.”

‘Get 500 000 Rand and all you have to do is not publish the story’

The people involved in the deals are clearly more concerned about Sipho Masondo himself. A few days before he was planning to break the Lepelle story, he received a phone calls from a man who wanted to speak him urgently. “A new source, I thought. So I met that man in a Wimpy in Polokwane. For breakfast. But he told me that he was a lawyer and that his clients included Nomvula Mokonyane “and others.”  Then he opened his bag and I saw money. “Here is 500,000 Rand [more than 30,000 euro, EG],” he said. “All you have to do is not publish that Lepelle story.”

Masondo said no. “Of course I could use half a million. But you never know what is going to happen. It could be a trap. Once you have that money inside your car, a police officer may knock at your window. Or they blackmail you with it ten years later. I told him I am not doing this.” The man was so surprised, Masondo ends his story. “He said he made payments to journalists so often. I was the first to say no.”

Why did not he go to the police? Here was someone, sent allegedly by the Minister of Water Affairs, to bribe a journalist. Surely that should go to court?  Grinning: “I don’t want to be the news.  I’d rather write my pieces.” He did reveal the identity of the middleman to his editor-in-chief, though. “The guy later contacted me again to tell me he had fought with his political clients. He said there had been a meeting where the suggestion was made to physically remove me. He told me he had told them he was not going to be involved with murder.”

The award-winning series of stories that Masondo wrote about the corruption at Water Affairs has led to an announcement by Minister Mokonyane herself that an investigation is to be conducted. Grinning again: “That is going to be a whitewash, that investigation.”

Rosebank, Johannesburg

Corruption researcher Thabang, who does not want his true name in this story because of the sensitivity of the work he does for civil society organisations, believes the end of the downturn is in sight. “The public is with us and so are most media. The judiciary is intact and there are plenty institutions, public and private, who are in favour of doing business decently. That’s why they hire people like me. We’ve got so much evidence now that we could already drag all of these guys to court.”

Those ‘guys’ are becoming more insecure by the day, he notes. “Our dad” as they call President Zuma – is no longer the great protector. The ANC is split, with the biggest part now no longer fully on his side. Even the Council of Churches is joining the protests. “And indeed, two weeks after our conversation, the South African Council of Churches will issue an explosive report based partly on earlier corruption investigations by ex-public protector Thuli Madonsela but also on ‘unburdening’ talks the Council itself has had with repentant officials and politicians. When launching the report, the churches call the current government ‘immoral’ – a hard blow in this majority Christian country.

Of course Thabang and his fellow members of the rebel alliance (see the previous part in this series), still have more work to do before they can rest. “Fortunately, it is not difficult. Their tricks are so transparent.”

He explains the patterns. “They always do it the same way. First, they (the people at the top around Zuma) dismiss capable people from the ministries and state-owned businesses. Then they embrace expensive, ambitious plans with long words in them -they’ll call them something like “Transformative Reconstruction and Public Renovation.” Then they hold a press conference announcing that this plan – which is always worth millions or billions – will address urgent needs: houses, roads, bridges, trains, dams -it can be anything. Then they conclude contracts with friends and call that “black empowerment.”  These then do half or bad work, with the lion’s share of money being paid to “consultancies” that are invariably also run by themselves.”

He shows a network chart that is part of one of his investigations. “Look, this tax money went to that project, and then to that company and then to that consultancy and then to this middleman.” When I ask where the money is now and he says “three guesses,” I know right away: Dubai, the financial headquarters of President Zuma’s brokers, the Gupta brothers from India, who reside in the posh Saxonwold suburb in Johannesburg. The Gupta’s are, of course, not the only corrupt network, but they are the closest to the President himself.

Both the Madonsela and the SACC reports describe how Zuma’s vassals in state-owned companies regularly give contracts to Gupta companies, funneling billions of Rands to them while these state enterprises themselves were doing steadily worse-owned companies until they were sucked dry: the electricity company, the mining fund, the railways, the airline, the state broadcaster, even the arms company Denel are in financial trouble now. Paying school fees for Zuma’s children, way back in the nineties, has proved a good investment to the Gupta brothers, who started out with a single computer hardware store in Johannesburg back then. The money they have raked in has, according to recent ‘Gupta’ email leaks in the South African press, already paid for a US$ 25 million mansions in Dubai for the president himself and a more modest US$ 1,5 million flat for his son Duduzane Zuma, who is according to the emails a central player in the Zuma-Gupta network.

His dad Jacob Zuma has meanwhile denied owning the Dubai mansion that the emails speak of. And the elite police unit the Hawks are investigating the emails. It is feared however, that the Hawks might be set upon the whistleblowers who hacked and released the emails, rather than upon their content.)

Then again, as the events at Water Affairs show, the corruption is not limited to the Gupta network. Many in the country are following the example of those at the top, from the Glebelands hostel in Umlazi, Durban, where a mafia distributes the beds for migrant workers in exchange for hard cash -in that struggle alone, there have been sixty deaths to date- to the hijacking of construction projects, also in Durban, by a criminal group of construction companies who simply use guns to demand the contracts.

“It’s vital that the current regency clique disappears,” Thabang nods. “The fish does rot from the head, you know.” He has has lost a friend, Jimmy Mohlala, to corruption too. “It was in 2010, in the run-up to the soccer world cup here. He denounced fraud with regard to the construction of the Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit, EG)  stadium. He waved the documents in the fraudster’s faces at a local authority meeting. He was shot after that.”

‘Good blacks are shot, or just fired’

Because of Mohlala, and Mark-Anthony Williams and so many others, Thabang is angry at people who think corruption is caused by black empowerment. “Rather call it incompetence-empowerment, or criminal empowerment. I haven’t seen good black people getting promoted in those deals. Good blacks are shot, or just fired.”

That evening I hear that good people are in trouble at the healthcare department too. “It’s sad. They are plundering the department whilst others work hard and see patients.” But no one will talk to me, the contact says. “They are all scared.”

There are so many scared people, but good and hard-working people in South Africa who desperately try to deal with the damage done by others. I think back to the report I did for the first part of this series, at the school in Umlazi, Durban, where schoolteachers, parents and children were keeping things together. Just.

A few days after this conversation, in a sandwich shop in Centrion, I meet a nice policeman, whose name, going by the nameplate on his uniform, is Constable Manenzhe. He tells me he loves his job because he really wants to serve and protect the public, and even offers to help me find my daughter’s recently stolen mobile phone. “But I’m currently trying to set up my own business and when that is done I’ll have to resign.” With sad eyes: “I just don’t feel like staying anymore. You don’t get encouragement, only the one who look for benefits for themselves are promoted. Our Commissioner (he is speaking of acting national police commissioner Kgomotso Phahlane, who has been exposed in the news for this, EG) has six expensive cars that he certainly did not pay for from his salary. How can I stay when the police service is like that?”

Our conversation breaks off when a man comes running from the street. He shouts, he just found burglars in his house and Constable Manenzhe immediately runs back with him with a slight hurried wave in my direction.

I think of Constable Manenzhe again two weeks later, when new police minister Fikile Mbalula, -under pressure to show that, in the avalanche of damning reports about his government, at least he is not corrupt-, tells Acting Commissioner Phahlane to step down. His replacement, fellow top cop Lesetja Mothiba, has so far escaped corruption accusations.

I hope Constable Manenzhe feels good enough about his new boss to stay.