Special Investigating Unit gets close to the fire

President Jacob Zuma has relied heavily on the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) in his attempts to demonstrate his determination to fight corruption.

Zuma regularly points out that he has authorised 18 investigations by the unit in the past year, targeting R9.1-billion in government contracts and another R3.4-billion in conflict-of-interest matters, “the highest in the history of the SIU”.

The unit is also involved in the Anti-Corruption Task Team, formed during the same period to co-ordinate the corruption busting initiatives of the justice, crime prevention and security cluster.

The unit is probing many state organs, with a heavy focus on procurement in the beleaguered department of public works and possible fraud on a massive scale in the rural development and land reform department.

These investigations will inevitably lead it into areas that are politically uncomfortable for Zuma and others. But both the presidency and SIU sources have tried to argue that Willie Hofmeyr’s replacement as head of the unit has nothing to do with such investigations.

Police leases
The R1.7-billion police leasing scandal resulted in the most obviously politically charged of the unit’s investigations.

The unit investigated jointly with the public protector, resulting in reports on two leases in Pretoria and Durban.

They found former public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and suspended police commissioner Bheki Cele guilty of maladministration.

Zuma prevaricated for months over the findings before he finally sacked Mahlangu-Nkabinde, suspended Cele and appointed a board of inquiry.

But the affair involved circumstances that were difficult to explain without inferring senior intervention: Mahlangu-Nkabinde’s predecessor, Geoff Doidge, was suddenly removed after he and director general Siviwe Dongwana ordered the Pretoria lease investigated and frozen.

Mahlangu-Nkabinde then defied two legal opinions to press ahead with the Pretoria lease and tried to revive the Durban deal. She also fired Dongwana.

In both cases, the leases favoured businessperson Roux Shabangu, who reportedly boasted of being close to Zuma. He and Zuma later denied this.

Ultimately, however, the evidence and pressure that flowed from the unit and the protector’s investigations were overwhelming.

Public works and police
In spite of the wide publicity the police leasing investigation received it was only part of a far broader probe into the public works department and police.

Zuma authorised the public works probe days after the Pretoria police lease was signed, in July 2010.

The public works contracts under investigation, probably the SIU’s biggest probe to date, are valued at more than R3-billion, though this is expected to triple. The primary focus is on the department’s procurement processes.

The unit expects to wrap up the investigation in 2013.

Of about 40 leases being scrutinised, another was awarded to Roux Shabangu to house the police’s Independent Complaints Directorate in Pretoria. He is apparently one of the unit’s bigger focal points.

The SIU is also focusing on supply chain management irregularities in the building and renovation of police stations worth more than R330-million.

Rural development
In its biggest data collection project ever the unit visited rural development and land reform offices throughout the country, collecting, scanning and cataloguing more than five million paper documents so that these could be kept safe as evidence.

Zuma authorised this investigation in February this year, after it emerged that millions were being lost by officials fraudulently awarding land reform grants.

So far, three officials and a KwaZulu-Natal businessperson have been arrested on fraud and corruption charges over grants worth R50-million, the Assets Forfeiture Unit has frozen farms and assets worth the same amount, and farms valued at R36-million have been forfeited back to the state.

The alleged fraud could run into hundreds of millions.

Others
The SIU’s other key investigations include:

  • Tshwane Municipality, where 65 officials have been identified with interests in companies doing business with the metro, costing the local authority R185-million.
  • Housing contracts totalling R2-billion, one of the unit’s longest-running projects. At least 50% of housing contracts have been shown to be problematic, with astounding amounts wasted on contractors who build defective and incomplete homes or fail to build at all.
  • Social grants. Working with the department of social development and the South African Social Security Agency the SIU has been investigating fraudulently awarded grants for several years and claims to have saved R898-million in cancelled grants in one of its “most consistently productive investigations”.

* Got a tip-off for us about this story? Email [email protected]

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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