BOOK EXTRACT: Christmas in Mamparalanga

2017-05-21 06:06

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City Press journalist Sizwe sama Yende has published a book on his years of investigating corruption in Mpumalanga under the premiership of David Mabuza. In this edited extract, he recounts a famous attempt to bribe him.

Eerie Assignment: A journalist’s nightmare in Mpumalanga by Sizwe sama Yende

Lesedi House Publishers

372 pages


On Friday, December 3 2010, I struck gold, or so I thought. Christmas had come early for me during an awful year by any definition.

However, a Father Christmas I did not expect was lurking around the corner. He had a gift accompanied by terms and conditions to put a spanner in the works. The kind of gift with strings attached.

Month after month since April, I had been prospecting earnestly for my gold, a document, until one politician’s vicissitude presented a reliable source that passed it on to me.

Documented proof, verified and tested, is gold to any journalist. This document contained details about a R230m contract the Mpumalanga department of agriculture, rural development and land administration – when David Dabede Mabuza was MEC – awarded under very suspicious circumstances in September 2008.

The Farm Mechanisation contract was counted among many megabucks tenders that the provincial departments had awarded irregularly under a cloud of cynicism, cronyism and nepotism.

Then, November 4 2010 – a turning point in my investigation arrived. Premier Mabuza reshuffled his cabinet for the first time since he occupied the hot seat in 2009.

One way of hitting back at DD Mabuza was to finally leak the investigation report done by the Integrity Management Unit into the Farm Mechanisation tender. The whole aim of the tender was noble – to assist poor rural families with some form of farming machinery and implements to assure them of food security.

The department wanted to appoint a company to buy new tractors, in addition to what government already had, and manage the fleet that would be used by the province’s rural communities for the Masibuyele Emasimini (Let’s go back to the fields) project.

Administration head of department, Nelisiwe Sithole, suppressed an investigation report the Integrity Management Unit subsequently produced on the Farm Mechanisation tender with all her life.

Sithole also protected the winners of the multimillion-rand contract. DD Mabuza was also aware of the report as the Integrity Management Unit was housed in his office.

I visited Daggakraal and had a whole weekend to study the report while I was there. It detailed how the department irregularly awarded the tender to Sizwangendaba/Lowveld Trekkers JV.

During my investigation, I could not help but notice that the tender was awarded in 2008 when Premier Mabuza was the MEC for agriculture, environment and land administration.

Furthermore, my investigation revealed that Sizwangendaba’s directors were at that time town planners – Patrick Chirwa and Harrington Dhlamini – originally from Malawi and Swaziland, respectively.

The duo was at one stage among DD Mabuza’s closest inner circle of friends and they were registered as co-directors of a few companies with the premier.

On Monday, December 6 2010, after my return from a weekend vacation in Daggakraal, I emailed questions to former agriculture, rural development and land administration director of communications, Janine Julies. Julies fobbed me off and did not respond.

On Thursday, December 9 2010, I emailed questions to Mabuza’s then spokesperson, Mabutho Sithole.

Sithole did not answer the questions, ever. I checked with him several times during the day and his excuse was that he was out of the office and could not access his email.

On Friday morning at about 07:00, when I was bracing myself to inevitably write a one-sided story, Sithole phoned me and suggested that we meet face to face for breakfast at the high-end Botanical Gardens restaurant at Riverside Park in Mbombela.

This is nothing out of the ordinary in our line of duty. People we interview have their preferences when responding to questions – either by phone, email or in a face-to-face meeting.

I agreed, but told Sithole I needed to check if I would have the time because Fridays are very hectic for a Sunday newspaper journalist. It is usually impossible to get out for meetings unless it is relevant to a story due for publication that week.

I was too busy in the morning and could not make it for breakfast. Therefore, I postponed the meeting for lunch instead.

I had already submitted the story to my news editor, Japhet Ncube, with a note alerting him that Sithole would respond later that day, after our meeting, and I would send his response then.

We met as planned. In fact, I was 30 minutes late and found him already seated – sipping red wine. We ordered food.

Our conversation vacillated from family life and careers to politics, and, of course, the tensions in the province. We were not friends, but had interacted during the line of duty for more than 10 years such that we did not struggle to have a topic to talk about whenever we met.

Sithole kept on hinting that I should drop the story, and I kept on brushing him off. I said I could not give him any assurance that I could just drop a story because he asked me to without any facts suggesting that I could be wrong or I was clutching at straws.

We finished our lunch and, as the host, he paid. We walked out of the restaurant, still talking about various things, and that was when he took a wad of cash out of his pocket and handed it to me.

I took the money. I felt uneasy, but I immediately made up my mind about what I was going to do with it. We parted and I drove straight to the police station to lay a charge – a small act that would cause reverberations in the country.

The stories caused a buzz and shook my small world.

I somehow felt for Sithole and I wondered if the bribe was his own initiative or he was sent by his bosses to corrupt and lure one more journalist into their fold. Remember that a cohort of journalists were on the side of DD Mabuza’s government and were helping to douse the flames as he evaded scandal after scandal.

Premier DD Mabuza would, in a short incidental and face-to-face meeting I had with him in 2014, say: “Mabutho is a collected, upright individual. He did something done on the streets and he is not that kind of a person. He was trying to protect me, but he tried to do so by doing something he was not used to doing.”

Mabuza did not associate himself with Sithole’s actions, as he has not with all other incidents when allies and supporters did things in his name.

When I weighed Sithole’s suffering, and what could have happened to my reputation as journalist, I still maintain that I did the right thing to restore journalists’ dignity and for the whole country bedeviled by the scourge of corruption.

Sithole was removed as Mabuza’s spokesperson, but kept a job in the premier’s office with the same salary and benefits. Had I allowed myself to be paid to drop the story, I would have been sacked from my job and no sane editor would want to hire me.

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