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Free State: Capital of corruption?

2019-04-01 23:25

Residents are sick of maladministration in the province. Many adults – including university students – say they will vote for the EFF or simply not vote at all

Residents in the Free State say they are getting sick and tired of the numerous allegations of maladministration against the provincial government and its municipalities.

“It is high time we sent a message to the ANC through our ballot; 25 years in power and there is nothing tangible to show for it.

“What is even more disconcerting is that even with all its failings in the province, come the elections, the ANC will still win,” said Innocent Maile, a resident, who described himself as “a former ANC member”, in Vrede, a small town in the northeastern Free State.

“Because of these never-ending allegations of corruption against numerous high-profile ANC comrades in the province, we will not enjoy the previous majority that we got in the last elections.”

Numerous residents who spoke to City Press on our week-long elections coverage in the province echoed Maile’s sentiments with some even colloquially referring to the Free State as the “capital of corruption” and a “cash cow for corrupt officials”.

The Free State has the unceremonious reputation of having introduced the majority of South Africans to the infamous Gupta family.

It was because of the family’s alleged looting of Vrede’s Estina Dairy Project of more than R220 million that the country finally took note of the brazen manner in which the Guptas and their allies were enriching themselves.

Vrede is a scenic little town about 20km east of the N3, close to the Mpumalanga border. At the heart of the town is the imposing Dutch Reformed Church.

At the intersection in front of the church men, both young and old, gather religiously every weekday morning, waiting for labour brokers to come and pick them up for part-time work in the surrounding large farming district.

Nothing about the residents’ reality corresponds with the name, Vrede, which translates to “in peace”.

As one resident said: “It’s just a constant struggle just to make ends meet.”

A senior official in the Phumelela Municipality, the region under which Vrede falls, told City Press that what was even more detestable was the fact that “the Vrede dairy project was a state-of-the-art project that would have provided numerous community members with the jobs they desperately seek”.

“The hi-tech equipment was the first of its kind not only in the province but also in the country,” said the source.

“Cows would be brought into the milking stations, which are circular in construction. It could accommodate about 15 to 20 cows at a time. The milking equipment could detect the type of feed the cows had eaten and also determine whether a cow was healthy enough to milk.

“There were also numerous processing stations earmarked to be constructed on the farm that would have provided employment to many community members. All that is up in the air now,” said the source.

Aggrieved community members said they would address these and other matters through their ballots.

“I would either vote for the opposition EFF or not vote at all because the ANC-Led Phumelela municipality is failing to address our needs.

“There is no work. Even when we try to find work we can’t get the jobs because this municipality thrives on the deployments of comrades. People get jobs based on who they are connected to,” a resident said.

“We can speak on anything else but this matter. This is a sensitive issue,” said Dume Kobeni, the manager in the office of the mayor, when City Press visited the Phumelela Municipality, under which Vrede falls, and enquired about the dairy project.

“Moreover I don’t like talking to the media because you people distort what we say particularly when it has to do with such a sensitive matter as the Vrede Dairy Project.”

Maluti-a-Phofung municipality

After a four-hour drive we arrived in Maluti-a-Phofung, an administrative area in the Thabo Mofutsanyane district. The challenges faced here were strikingly similar to those in Vrede.

Municipal workers, mostly affiliated with SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu), were staging a “sit-out”, blockading the entrance to the municipal building.

Samwu chairperson in Maluti-a-Phofung Siphiwe Manyoni said: “We are here seeking answers from management and the administrators who were placed by the executive committee of the Free State to salvage the municipality.”

Another Samwu member was more forthright, saying: “The state of the municipality is appalling.” The member said that should there no be no significant change “then come the May 8 elections, Samwu workers would stop blindly voting for the ruling party merely based on the fact that they are part of their alliance”.

“It is high time we sought change; if that can’t be achieved through dialogue as we have first attempted, then we will address our dissatisfaction at the ballot box,” said the Samwu member.

The protests stemmed from the arrest of two senior officials – the chief financial officer, Nrateng Khumalo, and the expenditure manager, Diakanyo Khampepe – for allegedly defrauding the municipality of R4.6 million.

This was soon followed by the sheriff attaching the municipality’s assets in mid-March following its failure to pay an amount of almost R2.8 billion it owes to Eskom.

Free State MEC for the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs Oupa Khoabane tried to engage with the aggrieved employees.

But he did not reach any conclusive resolution with the workers and was jeered for saying he would take the matter to the premier for further deliberation.

The workers told the MEC that they had lost all hope in Premier Sisi Ntombela.

“She was previously MEC for cooperative governance and traditional affairs, dealing with us for a long time and was aware of our issues yet did not address them.

“Why should she address our concerns now? She promised to come back to us in 2017; even today we are still waiting,” said a disgruntled gentleman, who identified himself as Bonolo Mokoena.

Incomplete houses

From Maluti-a-Phofung, we moved to Bethlehem, where we spoke to residents living at the controversial Baken Park RDP house constructed by Unital Holding, a Chinese company, which was allegedly partly owned by Ace Magashule’s daughter.

She resigned from the company last year.

Residents said years after moving to the area north of Bethlehem, they were still living in incomplete houses that lacked basic amenities. This has led to some pensioners using their grant money to at least install toilets.

An elderly resident, Khehla Maseko, told City Press on Thursday: “It’s been a year since we moved into the area and we still don’t have electricity and running water.”

Maseko said when they moved in, the house was incomplete with no ceilings or bathroom facilities, such as toilets, and no electricity or electricity boxes.

The ANC councillor in the area Mavuso Tshabalala declined to comment on the matter.

“There are many political issues here and I don’t want to respond because the Baken Park RDP issue is a sensitive matter and I might receive backlash from senior officials within the party [ANC],” he said.

The Free State human settlements department came under fire last year when it was revealed that it awarded contracts worth R150 million to the Chinese company in which Magashule’s daughter, Thoko Malembe, allegedly owned a 30% stake.

But Maseko said despite the numerous hardships that he still faced because of the ruling ANC’s maladministration in the province, he still remained a loyal ANC supporter.

“There is nothing wrong about the party, it’s the people who are in charge who are tainting it.

“I am still voting ANC come this year’s elections,” said Maseko.

DA weighs in

DA Free State premier candidate Patricia Kopane said she had visited the area in Bethlehem and was deeply disturbed by what she saw.

She added that what was crippling service delivery was the blatant corruption in the province.

“Look at the infrastructure, it’s falling apart. Corruption cases chase away investors.

“The Free State is a monument of corruption, look at what happened at Estina,” said Kopane, adding that Free State residents should rather turn to the DA for solutions.

“Look at the Western Cape where the DA governs, unemployment stands at 14%; nationally it’s at 24%.

“In the Free State the unemployment rate is 39.30% and youth unemployment stands at a staggering 51%,” she said.

Kopane said should her party win and she was elected as premier she would do away with corrupt officials and try to recoup the money that has been lost through maladministration.

She said the DA supported the direct elections of senior political figures such as presidents, premiers and mayors.

Students prefer EFF

Students at the university of the Free State agreed with Kopane that there was a need for another party to be given the opportunity to turn around the fortunes of the province.

They differed with her about what that party might be. Instead they told City Press the EFF would be their choice.

“It’s been 25 years since the ANC took charge and there is nothing to show for it.

“After attending classes we have to go and collect water as there is no running water. This is all thanks to the ruling ANC.

“As for the DA, they have been the official opposition before some of us were born and they have not achieved anything as well. It is time for us to give other parties, such as the EFF, a chance,” said Siyethemba Sithole a third-year student at the University of the Free State (UFS).

He said young people were no longer voting because of history.

“We are voting for the future. The future looks bright. The future looks red. The future is the EFF,” he said.

First-time registered voter Nhlanzeko Mhlongo a second-year student at the UFS said she was “hoping that the party that will come into power will get the youth involved because at the moment things are not going well; there is load shedding, unemployment ... we study but know that after getting the qualifications we might not even get the jobs”.

She said the EFF’s success in institutions of higher learning translated nationally because it was “the only party whose policies are in line with the needs of most black youths”.


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December 8 2019