It is war in Limpopo. Depending on whom you listen to, it is an outright assault on gross corruption and mismanagement that has contributed to the continuing immiseration of millions of South Africa’s poorest, or a politically motivated purge targeting the home base of the ANC’s rebel alliance.
The truth is that it is probably both.
Finance minister Pravin Gordhan this week set out in stark terms the scale of the problem, and there is no gainsaying the evidence of epic corruption and incompetence — hundreds of millions misspent and an almost complete inability to account for public money.
Our own reporting on Julius Malema’s business interests has put some pretty fleshy detail on just how things work in Polokwane, after all.
There is also no denying that, as supporters of Malema and Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale point out, other provinces have departments in a very similar mess. Some treasury officials who reject everything Malema stands for and who are familiar with the finances of provinces like the North West, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, say the same thing.
For Gordhan, the sine qua non appears to be that Limpopo got itself into such a sticky position it could no longer pay its bills and had to beg the treasury to extend its overdraft.
He is certainly right that Mathale and his coterie have pushed their luck further than any other provincial government has done. The question is whether the standard for invoking section 100 is bankruptcy.
It is not. The Constitution allows national intervention on the grounds of failure or inability to fulfil an executive obligation. Lacking the cash to pay staff and suppliers is a particularly extreme form of such failure, but not the only test.
Most South Africans don’t care whether corrupt provincial tenders feed the supporters of President Jacob Zuma or his opponents, they just want them stopped.
So we welcome Gordhan’s determination to clean up Mathale’s Augean stables. We just hope he doesn’t stop there. The governance crisis in the provinces is profound and the war must be fought on a broader front.