From pawns to kingbreakers

2012-10-27 11:40

Limpopo might seem to have risen to prominence only since its most famous son, Julius Malema, burst on to the national political scene in 2008, but the process actually started when Jacob Zuma was elected as ANC president in 2007.

For Thabo Mbeki, Limpopo was like the drunkard uncle no one really talks about, the one who’s an embarrassment to everyone but cannot be kicked out because he is, after all, family.

Officially, Limpopo is the poorest province in South Africa and because it lies in the far north of the country, it is easy to forget it even exists.

But this proved to be something of a bonus for Zuma during his Polokwane battle.

He took on board some of the local leaders in Limpopo to help run his campaign and ensured afterwards that they were handsomely rewarded with top government positions for their efforts. Think Collins Chabane, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and Aaron Motsoaledi, who all happen to be competent ministers too.

The premier of Limpopo is Cassel Mathale who, in the run-up to Polokwane and for a while after, was one of Zuma’s staunchest supporters.

Mathale is a young politician with great ambitions and once Zuma became president, he set about building an empire for himself and his cronies that made his former colleagues in Limpopo, who are now in Cabinet, rather uncomfortable.

Mathale proudly declared in newspapers that he was a businessman who did business with his own government.

He saw no conflict of interest in this, he said, because he had been in business long before he became a top leader in the provincial ANC.

Luthuli House said nothing, probably because at the time Mathale was an important ally for Zuma and they did not consider it politically advantageous to rock that boat.

As a result, Mathale was re-elected to his position as ANC chairperson in 2011 – albeit under dubious circumstances at a conference that was seen as rigged by his opposition, who rallied around deputy arts minister Joe Phaala.

Like most other provincial conferences, this was seen as a proxy for the Zuma-versus-Motlanthe debate and despite the alleged irregularities, Team Motlanthe seems to have triumphed.

So how did the province go from 100% Zuma to overwhelming support for his nemesis? In a word: Malema.

As the poster boy for Limpopo, Julius Malema brought enormous attention to the province – from the media and national government to investigative agencies.

Malema’s tales of poverty did not align with the enormous amounts of money he spent in Limpopo, building and buying houses and farms, as well as making a lot of money from “flipping” – buying prime land (in Malema’s case, state land) at low prices and then selling it at a generous profit.

Mathale and Malema are very close friends.

Malema once famously told newspaper reporters that he survives on hand-outs, and that he can call Mathale any time if he runs out of money.

But it appears that Mathale helped Malema with more than a neighbourly cup of sugar.

Together they seem to have run the province as if it was a private business.

As outlined in newspaper reports, tenders from provincial and municipal governments were allegedly channelled through them and together they took decisions about who should be awarded the contracts.

Thus they managed a complicated systems of favours, bribes and tenders, where those who received the contracts were obliged to deposit money into Malema’s family trust, a scheme first exposed by City Press.

Malema and Mathale even outsourced the tendering to a private company which, as it happens, was owned by Malema and yet another friend.

But when details about On-Point Engineers started to leak to the media, the walls began to close on the two friends.

The allegations were followed up by SA Revenue Service investigations and now the Hawks are looking into how millions of rands went into individual pockets rather than to the province’s poor.

Finally, national government moved in and placed most of the Limpopo government under administration, including the health and roads departments, both of which were seen to be cash cows for Malema and Mathale.

The amount of patronage Malema and Mathale have been able to dispense will ensure that at least 70% of the Limpopo delegates will take their lead from Malema and vote for Motlanthe.

Ironically, Malema still tries to convince the people of the province that the reason for their extreme poverty lies in the Union Buildings and not in a double-storey mansion in Sandton where he lives.

» The book launch will be held at Exclusive Books Hyde Park on November 8 at 6.30pm. Rossouw will be in conversation with City Press editor in chief Ferial Haffajee

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