National

Joemat-Petterson says Zuma is the 'best available'

Glynnis Underhill

Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson supports President Jacob Zuma for a second term in office "unreservedly".

Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson claims allegations of tender fraud and misspending are part of a smear campaign. (David Harrison, M&G)

Yet, when asked in an interview with the Mail & Guardian why Zuma would allegedly be spending an estimated R238-million of public funds on upgrading his Nkandla homestead she had an intriguing response: "You know, we are human. In politics you do not find a perfect politician; you choose the best available."

Joemat-Pettersson pointed out that Zuma was fully supportive of her fight against corruption in her department. His support is clearly important to her, because she believes she is the victim of an orchestrated smear campaign to derail her efforts.

Attempts to discredit her began after she launched internal and external forensic audits into supply-chain management, financial controls and procurement processes in her department, she said. Technical and cyber-crime experts were brought in to assist with the probe.

"If the president supports this sort of exposure of corruption, I have huge respect for him. My staff are not being victimised. I do not think I am paranoid, whereas the media tries to portray me as someone who is paranoid and fighting with my staff, polishing off my staff."

Speaking immediately after her appearance on Tuesday before Parliament's portfolio committee on agriculture, forestry and fisheries, the immaculately dressed Joemat-Pettersson was visibly annoyed by the committee's line of questioning.

Nkandlagate
She was asked by the committee whether her department was allocating R800-million towards the R2-billion new town being built just 3.2km from Zuma's homestead. Nobody wanted to listen to her denials, she said.

"I have not paid this R800-million for Zumaville and the president knows it. I was astonished when I read in the papers that the department is giving money to Zumaville. There is not a cent allocated to this project."

The media attention has now shifted from her, she said. "You can't sustain a lie. You will run out of ideas." Instead, it is now focused on the department of public works and "Nkandlagate", she said, referring to the top-secret upgrades to Zuma's homestead.

But Joemat-Pettersson came under fire in Parliament because her department had achieved less than 20% of its targets while spending 99% of its R4.9-billion budget.

The public protector is also investigating complaints against her over an R800-million tender for her department's marine resources patrol vessels that now sit idle and without crew in Simon's Town Harbour.

The minister handed the vessels over to the navy following a row over her department's awarding of the tender to Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium.

Irregularly awarded
The former service provider, Smit Amandla Marine, has contested this decision in court.

Smit Amandla had held the contract to crew, manage and maintain the research and fisheries patrol vessels for 12 years and allegations that the tender had been irregularly awarded to Sekunjalo caused a big stink.

In her defence, Joemat-Pettersson said she had immediately withdrawn the Sekunjalo contract when she received a legal opinion stating there were irregularities in the tender.

"We are working hard with the navy to get the boats out there. Sekunjalo has not received a cent for that tender.

"Claims have been made that there was a corrupt relationship between myself and Sekunjalo. If I had a corrupt relationship, why would I withdraw the tender and give it to the navy? I think I should have been applauded for withdrawing the tender."

A forensic audit by Ernst & Young into procurement and supply-chain management in the department has just been completed and handed to the Hawks. "It would be irresponsible for me to disclose any information before the law enforcement agencies have made their findings," Joemat-Pettersson said.

Clarification
"The report finds that our systems are open to abuse by whoever won a tender. And what the report makes clear to me is that when there are continuous extensions of contracts without following correct tender procedures, the department creates circumstances where a particular firm gains an unfair advantage over others."

Smit Amandla spokesperson Clare Gomes said the company had sent a letter to Joemat-Pettersson asking for clarification following a press conference last week by acting director general Sipho Ntombela, who said the company had been named in the report.

Joemat-Pettersson said her department would now focus on its internal investigation, which found that some officials had deliberately destroyed  information and documentary evidence.

The department would be able to bring a number of culprits to book through disciplinary processes.

"Heads will roll. It will start with the staff."


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