The University of Limpopo is oiling the wheels of the patronage machine around expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema through two multimillion-rand contracts handed to his close associates.
The beneficiaries, Mandla Seopela and Collins Foromo, are linked to the Friends of the Youth League, which Malema and his allies set up as an alternative structure to the ANC Youth League after his expulsion from the ANC.
The national government took over the administration of five Limpopo departments in December,a move widely seen as cutting off the flow of state resources to those around Malema. Now, according to two sources familiar with the university's financial administration, it is one of the last pockets of support for his campaign.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told Parliament in May that 38 "suspicious transactions" in Limpopo have been referred to police for criminal investigation.
The Mail & Guardian was told the higher education department had questioned the awarding of the two university contracts, but the university's senior management, which cited the Higher Education Act as protecting their autonomy, thwarted it.
The department denied this on Thursday, but confirmed that the university council had launched an investigation into allegations contained in a report by the public protector. The report is unconnected to the public protector's yet-to-be-released investigation into Malema's companies.
As Malema and the Friends crisscrossed the platinum belt last month in the wake of the violent protests in which 46 people died, questions were raised about the source of the funding for his "economic freedom" campaign. The questions come amid intense scrutiny of Malema's own finances flowing from parallel probes by the public protector, the Hawks and the South African Revenue Service. Malema's time of reckoning
The university confirmed that in July last year it awarded a R27.8-million tender for the conversion of a gymnasium into a laboratory to Foromo, Malema's former driver-turned-businessman.
The M&G understands that this is the first stage of three-phase project worth about R60-million in total.
Foromo told the M&G that he is invited to all the Friends's rallies, but denied contributing to the organisation.
In addition, the university has handed Seopela, one of the founders of the Friends and a self-confessed Malema sympathiser, a lucrative three-year lease for dining facilities on campus, enabling him to sell meals to students. The precise value of the deal could not be established this week. The university confirmed that it awarded the tender to Seopela's company, Bohlaleng Foods, in respect of the Medunsa campus in January last year.
Seopela toured Marikana in Malema's company two days after 34 miners were shot dead during a protest. He has been previously quoted, alternatively with Floyd Shivambu, as a spokesperson for the Friends.
A former president of the South African Students Congress and an ex-president of the university's student representative council, Seopela also works as a speechwriter for Limpopo Premier and close Malema ally Cassel Mathale.
A university council member complained that the subcommittee responsible for awarding contracts is notorious for not attaching detailed records of its decisions to its reports. Tender winners are simply announced as a fait accompli, the source claimed.
'Now that they can't control the provincial government departments, they're using the university to get money," said the council member.
But Friends spokesperson Shivambu issued a ringing denial: "Whoever is trying to link us to any form of wrongdoing in tenders is being a fucking arsehole. We have bigger battles to focus on here than fighting against crocodiles. Why would we be bothered by lizards and petty unrelated issues?"
Asked whether the university is gratifying political forces aligned with Malema, the university's marketing and communications executive director, Kgalema Mohuba, said he is "unaware of this serious allegation".
"Obviously your source has more information than the university and we think that he or she should be helpful in providing details," he said.
Mohuba is said to be "very powerful", with oversight of strategic sectors of the university, including recruitment, contracts and campus security, and works hand in glove with vice-chancellor Nehemiah Mokgalong. Both men have served the university for years and have firm ties to Mathale. Mokgalong, who sits on the tender and physical planning committees, is said to serve as an adviser to Mathale. Mohuba moves in the same business circles as Mathale and his wife, sharing a number of mutual business partners.
Mohuba is also credited with persuading the university council to host the hotly contested ANC conference in 2007. The move endeared Mohuba to the party – but not to the university, which is reportedly still owed millions.
Mokgalong denied advising Mathale, saying: "I'm not a politician." He added that disgruntled university staff members who had resigned or been dismissed were behind the allegations. These had "made all attempts to vilify university management and the governance structure … to settle cheap political scores," he said.
The tender awarded to TC Foromo Trading Enterprise has raised eyebrows, and not only because of Foromo's links with Malema.
The council source questioned the cost of the tender, saying: "It's not like Foromo needs to build something new – the basic structure is already in place".
It is also not clear why the contract is set to unfold in three stages.
Foromo said: "I bid for the tender like any other businessman who saw it in the newspaper, not because of the political connection. Julius [Malema] doesn't know what I'm doing, and I don't report to him."
Several sources familiar with Malema and Foromo claim that the latter started out as a taxi driver in Johannesburg before Malema recruited him as his personal driver several years ago. Foromo began dabbling in small tenders, but he and his wife now drive around Polokwane in matching Mercedes C63s.
Foromo said: "I never used to be his driver; I only assisted him by driving him around. It's not like I was getting paid."
Part and parcel
Like Foromo, Seopela's fortunes have been intricately tied to Malema's. He was a Thabo Mbeki lobbyist in the province when Malema, then provincial youth league secretary, supported Jacob Zuma.
A well-placed source said that relations soured further when Malema set up Seopela's girlfriend with a Zanu-PF youth league official. It was only when Seopela apologised to Malema that he was rewarded with the prestigious position of speechwriter to Mathale.
Seopela admitted he was "part and parcel" of the Friends but denied being a funder: "I wish I had millions … unfortunately I don't," he said.
But he added: "I'm one of those people who believe that these comrades [Malema, Shivambu and former youth league secretary Sindiso Magaqa] were persecuted for wrong reasons."
Shivambu said: "There has never been any activity we [the Friends] did that required any fundraising from anyone. The only contribution was for the memorial service [of the miners], which came from concerned South Africans who felt the need to help workers. Lawyers are acting pro bono and nothing else needed funding because we can afford petrol money to go wherever we want to go."
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.