Ramatlhodi: Inside the Scorpions probe

A Scorpions probe and a lawsuit brought by rugby boss Brian van Rooyen have opened a Limpopo province can of worms in which tender-rigging and financial favours to the African National Congress and former premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi are alleged.

The Mail & Guardian revealed last week that Ramatlhodi was earmarked to take over from Bulelani Ngcuka as head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA)—but that his appointment was stalled because he was being probed for corruption by the Scorpions, a division of the NPA. Ramatlhodi was a surprise omission from President Thabo Mbeki’s Cabinet.

The NPA this week maintained its official policy of “no comment”, but the M&G has ascertained key aspects of the probe from players in companies involved, and from court documents and related sources.

At stake are the reputations of and potential criminal prosecutions against Ramatlhodi and Limpopo finance minister Thaba Mufamadi, who is also being probed. Both have denied the allegations.

Also of concern is the ethical implication of the ruling party receiving funding—confirmed by key players—flowing from a lucrative government contract.
The controversial renewal of this contract, for the payment of social grants in the province, is being challenged in the Pretoria High Court by Van Rooyen and his company, Labat Africa Management Consulting.

Labat claims the provincial government irregularly re-awarded the tender, worth about R250-million, to Cash Paymaster Services Northern (CPS) in late 2002 after a consortium led by Labat had scored higher on tender evaluation criteria. CPS and provincial authorities are opposing Labat’s legal action.

Van Rooyen claims in court papers that tender criteria were “manipulated” by the late introduction of “track record” as a requirement. This, a Labat consortium representative charged this week, came after Labat had turned down a request for a bribe.

CPS was first awarded the provincial grants contract in 1996. For much of the duration of this contract CPS was a joint venture between national technology company Aplitec and Limpopo-based Northern Corporate Investment Holdings, better known as Nicoh.

It is Nicoh that has been funding the provincial ANC through a “charitable” trust set up to benefit the people and developing businesses in the province. It is also through Nicoh that individual politicians, Ramatlhodi and Mufamadi, are alleged to have benefited.

Nicoh’s principal players are lawyer Solly Mohale and businessman Gideon Serote. Also associated with it, whether directly or by way of the charitable trust called the Baobab Development Trust, are cane furniture king Habakuk Shikoane and prominent car dealer Haroun Moti.

There have been differences between the four over who are the true shareholders, but there is no dispute that Baobab has been at least a 10% beneficiary of Nicoh—and that the ANC has benefited from Baobab.

Mohale this week confirmed that Nicoh has given 10% of proceeds to Baobab, and that Baobab in turn has donated to the ANC. He refused to give a rand value, but the CPS deal has been estimated to have paid Nicoh R700 000 a month, which means R70 000 a month to Baobab.

Said Mohale: “[Limpopo] is dominated by the main political party, the ANC ... If people come to ask for money, the trustees, if they agree with the objectives, will entertain it.”

He defended the party benefiting from a government contract, saying: “It depends on at what stage you are giving them money, whether it is open to everybody, and whether it is not illegal.”

There are contradictory views on whether others besides the ANC benefited from Baobab. Mohale claimed “community structures” and other parties had also received donations. This was contradicted this week by Shikoane, who is the chairperson of Baobab. He said it was “only the ANC” and that he estimated that the total benefit to the party was “not more than R1-million”.

ANC provincial secretary Cassell Mathale this week confirmed “it is quite possible [Baobab] may have donated money to the party”, but would not comment further without checking the facts. Mufamadi, who is also the party’s provincial treasurer, said: “The ANC receives donations from many business organisations.”

As Baobab has funded the party, the question arises whether this helped CPS win the grants tender in the first place or when it was renewed. And if influential individual politicians Ramatlhodi and Mufamadi also benefited from the CPS contract via Nicoh—the central question the Scorpions are trying to answer—it would have been outright corruption.

But the Scorpions investigation against Ramatlhodi and Mufamadi appears to have run into some difficulties. The original lead investigator, Cornwell Tshavhungwa, is now suspended from the Scorpions on corruption allegations relating to his dealings with a finance parastatal in Mpumalanga.

Tshavhungwa is understood to have recommended that the investigations into Ramatlhodi and Mufamadi be halted owing to a lack of evidence, but Ngcuka insisted that they be pursued.

The M&G understands that Tshavhungwa interviewed key players such as Shikoane and Mohale, but neither of them confirmed the allegations. Other investigators have now taken over the probe from Tshavhungwa.

The Scorpions started probing the allegations against Ramatlhodi and Mufamadi last year after they were first publicly aired by noseweek magazine, which quoted Shikoane as confirming the kickbacks.

Speaking to the M&G this week, Shikoane maintained no individuals had benefited. And Mohale said he had “no knowledge” of Ramatlhodi or Mufamadi having received money, “unless it was in their [ANC] executive capacities”.

Approached for comment, Mufamadi also denied individual benefit, saying it was “nonsense” and that “I have no relations with those companies that have been mentioned.” Ramatlhodi referred all queries to the ANC.

Serge Belamont, chief executive of Aplitec, Nicoh’s partner in CPS, said he had no knowledge of party funding flowing from the contract via Nicoh and the Baobab Development Trust, but said that “if that’s the case it wouldn’t be right”.

He said the province was correct to have re-awarded the contract to CPS rather than to Labat, as track record counted. “You are dealing with paying 800 000 poor people ... The tender board has a greater responsibility to decide than on simply who scored the highest points.”

NPA spokesperson Sipho Ngwema this week said: “The NPA did not publish any information to the M&G or anyone for that matter that suggests that we are investigating Mr Ngoako Ramatlhodi and/or Mr Thaba Mufamadi. We are, therefore, unable to verify or deny any of your assertions.”

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans is an old hand at investigations. A politics and journalism graduate, he cut his reporting teeth at the Cape Argus in the tumultuous early 1990s; then joined the Mail & Guardian as democracy dawned in April 1994. For the next 16 years (a late-1990s diversion into television and freelancing apart), the M&G was his journalistic home and launch pad for award-winning investigations focusing on the nexus between politics and money. Stefaans has co-authored exposés including Oilgate, the Selebi affair, Chancellor House and significant breaks in the arms deal scandal. Stefaans and Sam Sole co-founded amaBhungane in 2010. He divides his time between the demands of media bureaucracy (which he detests), coaching members of the amaBhungane team, and his first love, digging for dung.
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