Zuma’s NGO canned

2013-10-13 14:00

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Minister backtracks on her department’s involvement

Government departments have binned a R900 million food-security initiative chaired by President Jacob Zuma and run by his cousin Deebo Mzobe.

City Press can reveal that both the departments of agriculture and rural development – the main drivers of what was intended to be a government-wide food-security plan driven by the Masibambisane Rural Development Initiative – have decided to cut ties with Zuma’s nongovernmental organisation (NGO).

City Press has learnt that senior government officials expressed unease about funding the project because they found it difficult to justify funnelling money to it.

Instead, Zuma will launch a new food policy called Fetsa Tlala later this month in Kuruman in Northern Cape, run by the department of agriculture, without the help of Masibambisane.

Zuma – alongside high-powered delegations comprising Cabinet ministers, premiers and MECs – rolled out a number of Masibambisane-partnered rural development projects in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo in August. But other events, which were scheduled for last month, appear to have been cancelled.

In June, there was widespread outrage when it emerged that almost R900 million from different government departments had been pledged to a new food-security programme administered by Masibambisane at a meeting at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria.

Mzobe, who chaired the meeting, emerged as a pivotal player in the scheme.

But Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson told City Press on Friday: “Masibambisane was never an implementing agent, and they will not be for Fetsa Tlala. They were a mobilising agent. They are finished. They have done their work.

“We will use a reputable NGO, such as the World Food Programme (WFP). My money is going through the WFP, not Mzobe.”

Joemat-Pettersson, who in the past defended Masibambisane, insisted her department had not given Zuma’s NGO a cent.

“All departments that have funded (Masibambisane) must audit them,” she said, adding that she did not know who had funded it.

“If I had given them money, the first thing I would have demanded was an audit.

“Masibambisane was never (the department of) agriculture’s baby,” she insisted.

But in July, she told City Press: “Masibambisane was founded by President Zuma and hungry people who were constantly asking for help ... He is such a compassionate person and he realised a response was needed.”

Mzobe’s enormous influence in government departments dealing with Masibambisane was widely reported, with officials saying they were intimidated by him because of his close ties with the president.

But Joemat-Pettersson washed her hands of her department’s association with the NGO.

“It was more (the department of) rural development,” she said. “It rolled over into Agriculture; before that it was Rural Development. Rural Development would come to my department and say ‘Mzobe says blah, blah, blah’.

“I would then say: ‘Who is Mzobe? He is not part of my department?’ That is not what I do.”

Mzobe yesterday expressed disbelief at Joemat-Pettersson’s comments, saying he found them “strange”.

“I can’t believe for one second that the minister would say all these things that you are alleging she said.

“There is no way she can say we must be audited, knowing that very well that there is no money that we received from her department or any other department. I don’t believe what you are saying,” he said.

A highly placed source in the department of rural development said a political decision was taken last week that Masibambisane would be presented as a private initiative, although it would still be involved in the background.

Another senior government official with knowledge of a recent meeting between Joemat-Pettersson and her agriculture MECs, said there was talk that some departments and provinces refused to contribute to Masibambisane’s projects because their chief financial officers could not come up with budget lines to justify the money flowing to those projects.

In an interview with City Press last month, Rural Development Minister Gugile Nkwinti accused Masibambisane of taking the credit for projects funded and executed by his department.

Its most recent annual report – which was released this month – shows that in the last financial year, R65.2 million was channelled to a “food-security programme” run by the Independent Development Trust (IDT).

The IDT is a partner and funder of Masibambisane and a source confirmed that the money was meant for projects linked to Masibambisane. The IDT was not available for comment yesterday.

City Press has learnt that the rural development official responsible for allocating the funds to the IDT was briefly suspended.

This occurred after Nkwinti had demanded to know why the money had been channelled through an agency that subcontracted others rather than through the department that trained its people to do the job.

Neither Nkwinti nor his spokespersons could be reached for comment yesterday.

But Masibambisane’s financial statements showed that the NGO had received almost R4 million in donations that Mzobe claimed was his own money.

He sent a copy of the financials to City Press yesterday after first promising to do so in August.

Mzobe denied receiving any money from the IDT. He said it had its own food-security projects that it implemented on behalf of government.

Meanwhile, residents of Nxamalala, Zuma’s home village, said Mzobe had been “out of favour” with the president for some time.

“We are not sure what the issue is, but it’s an open secret here that they are no longer on such good terms,” said one who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another said: “At one time, it was clear that they were very close. Deebo was one of those people who was always with him, but in the background. I think there have been too many problems in public and he has embarrassed the president. But you never know.”

Zuma’s spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, was not available to comment.

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