/ 29 April 2009

The face of patronage

Brian Hlongwa is the face of patronage in the 21st century. He is the subject of serious allegations of corruption. If president-designate Jacob Zuma is genuine about his hustings’ promise to tackle graft, then a detailed investigation into Hlongwa should be his first step. The provincial health minister told the Sowetan two weeks ago that he did not need his not insubstantial salary as he made 10 times that from his private business interests.

The governing African National Congress disassociated itself from his statement and an investigation was launched into how the chief executive of a company that will, by 2012, have received R582-million in tenders from his department came to supply guarantees for Hlongwa’s Bryanston mansion. Glibly, he said that 3P chief executive Richard Payne was his friend, though opposition politicians and insiders say this is how bribes are paid.

3P does a range of consulting work for the Gauteng health department even though Hlongwa’s own head office staff has doubled since he took over, according to an article in the Financial Mail. While our hospitals run short of essential drugs because they can’t pay their bills, 3P’s accounts include R7-million spent on a beach football and volleyball tournament.

Hlongwa apologised to the ANC last Friday for his insensitive statement and later that night was photographed at an early victory party at the Hyatt. He sipped Moët and looked as if he did not have a care in the world. Take another look at the photograph and see how closely he is positioned to ANC campaign manager Fikile Mbalula. A regular Mr Bling, it was reported last week that Hlongwa pitched at the ANC’s ride ‘n braai campaigns (braai and dance fests that successfully repositioned the party among the youth) escorted by a posse of Harley Davidsons.

Nothing is likely to come of the investigation by the provincial integrity commissioner, Jules Browde, who has serially avoided taking on the mandarins of the Gauteng provincial government who treat the economic heartland like their own fiefdom. This is because Hlongwa is too close to power and because there are systemic problems with any attempt to cut graft.

In the past, Browde has found nothing wrong with a declaration and then a denial by premier Paul Mashatile (then serving as provincial finance minister) of ownership of a substantial tranche of shares in Business Connexion, a company part-owned by his pals and which gets substantial government contracts. He denied the holding, though various investigations have detailed the links between himself and the company.

Gauteng is in the grip of a network loosely called the Alex Mafia, the term that used to describe a group of activists who came from the famous township abutting Sandton but which now describes the enrichment of a younger set of comrades. Hlongwa is not from Alex, but most provincial ministers moonlight.

Like Hlongwa, they all hold businesses and declare some of what they make. The mafia works by placing family, friends and associates in key positions, both within the government and in its range of associated government-owned agencies and companies. From there, tenders are granted to a network of associated companies, such as 3P.

Kickbacks can reportedly take the form of shares, deposits on houses, luxury holidays on the French Riviera and foreign bank accounts.

While Hlongwa was caught out by revelations that Payne provided guarantees for the deposit on his home, the mafia is sophisticated in its aggrandisement. It’s incredibly hard to disentangle the labyrinth of companies and individuals that make up this insidious network, but the links between Payne and Hlongwa reveal the modus operandi. Numerous activists have detailed their concerns with these questionable practices to the ANC leadership but nothing comes of it.

One of the reasons that Browde will likely find no problem is that there are no rules or regulations preventing public servants from owning businesses. A survey by the auditor general in 2006 revealed that moonlighting is the order of business in the civil service — 52 000 government employees had interests in more than 20 000 close corporations or private and public companies.

It’s no wonder that delivery and development move at a snail’s pace when the men and women tasked with running hospitals, provisioning schools, seamlessly setting up grant-payment systems are all too bloody busy running their own businesses. And we, the citizenry, sanction this chicanery, which, in turn, allows Hlongwa to tell us he doesn’t need our salary because he makes much more by being a businessman.

One day I’d like to ask Hlongwa why he doesn’t quit the public service to join corporate life, since he is such a dab hand. The answer is that he can’t leave because his business success is closely tied only to his ability to leverage off the public purse. And if that is the case, there’s another name for that. It’s called corruption and it’s happening in every province in the same way.