Editorial: Gold Fields deal tarnishes BEE

The sorry saga of Gold Fields's 2010 empowerment deal has brought into focus the distortion and corruption of the noble ideal of broad-based black economic empowerment by greedy politicians and cynical, self-seeking elements of big business.

Here was an opportunity to follow the trend towards genuine grass-roots empowerment, where the emphasis should be on the potentially life-changing transfer of assets to ordinary people, rather than the enrichment of an already powerful and rapacious elite.

Instead, United States investigators hired by Gold Fields itself found that there had been a sleazy trade-off in which the company – under what it allegedly saw as a threat of losing an empowerment agreement and its access to a vital mining licence – increased the stake of ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete from R2.2-million to R28.6-million. Gold Fields promptly buried the findings and the man at the centre of the scandal, chief executive Nick Holland, suffered the slightest of consequences, offering to give up his bonus.

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South Africans are so inured to big-name politicians gobbling up the gravy that some commentators seem genuinely confused about why the allocation to Mbete was ethically and possibly legally indefensible.

In its long-delayed reaction this week, the ANC seemed outraged that Gold Fields's gratification of the ANC chairperson could be considered a "bribe".

Approaching it with non-South African eyes, the lawyers who conducted the probe saw the rights and wrongs perhaps so much more clearly – they found that the deal violated the US's Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This week Gold Fields conceded that the US Security and Exchange Commission has now started its own investigation.

In this edition of the Mail & Guardian we provide new details of the horse-trading that led to Mbete's sudden ascent to fabulous wealth. It is just about conceivable that her representative, Brian Mosehla, was not acting on her explicit instructions. But she must then explain why she accepted the gratification and has yet to give the investigators, or the South African public, an alternative version of what happened.

The distortion of broad-based black economic empowerment to benefit a handful of ANC hierarchs is one concern, but there is another, more fundamental issue. Accused of buying her driver's licence in the late 1990s, and of being one of the beneficiaries of the Travelgate scandal in Parliament, Mbete does not have an unblemished record. Other than being a big noise in the ruling party, what exactly has she done to deserve such riches?

Does she think such grotesque self-enrichment is befitting in the leader of a party overwhelmingly supported, and voted into office, by the poor, homeless and unemployed?

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