Gauteng defies the public protector
In December 2014 the system finally came through for Natty Letlape. It had taken years — years his cash-strapped employer did not really have to spare — but the public protector had just given the Gauteng provincial government some very clear marching orders.
By the middle of that January, public protector Thuli Madonsela directed the provincial government to start paying the small, Soweto-based building company Shatsane Systems some of the more than R9.6-million it was owed. And in two months, all payments must be completed, she said. Letlape was giddy for exactly as long as it took the provincial department of infrastructure development to respond to the report.
“They wrote and they said they were not going to make the payment,” says Letlape.
And that seemed to be that.
Letlape had approached the public protector because he and his partners did not have the money to launch a civil suit in the first place. They had no way of enforcing what were then seen, by some, as mere recommendations from a sort of ombud.
But almost exactly a year after they should have received the last of their money, there was a new, and unexpected, reason for hope.
On the last day of March this year the Constitutional Court delivered an unequivocal judgment on the long-dragging Nkandla saga. Remedial action directed by the public protector, said the highest court in the land, was binding, and neither the president nor Parliament could simply ignore it.
The treasury has until the end of May to report to the Constitutional Court how much money President Jacob Zuma must repay the state for taxpayer-funded work at Nkandla. If the court approves of that report, Zuma will have a tight deadline to make the payment.
Letlape assumed that what was good for the president was also good for a provincial government. But another month and a half down the line he can’t explain why his company still does not have its money.
“We’ve had meetings with the department where they gave an indication that they were going to pay, but now they are giving us the runaround again. There are all these internal meetings. Then we hear that the guy with the mandate to resolve it is doing another investigation, a parallel investigation to that of the public protector. Now we just don’t know anymore,” he says. Nor, it seems, does anyone else.
The project Shatsane was working on was a simple one. The Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve near Heidelberg needed a water supply upgrade, which would require a 13-km pipeline and associated works. The whole thing was supposed to cost well under R9-million and it would take six months to complete.
On May 20 this year it was exactly seven years behind schedule, and the provincial government can no longer calculate how much it had cost as a result of a confusion of stops and starts, new contracts initiated while old ones still had payments outstanding, and allegations of fraud and maladministration, some of them substantiated by Madonsela’s findings.
That a relatively small project could be so fraught “should be of great concern to the Gauteng government”, Madonsela said at the end of 2014 — as she directed that it be completed by March 2015.
The provincial portfolio committee, which has oversight over the Gauteng department of infrastructure development, cannot explain why the project is not yet completed, and the department itself this week said it was processing questions from the Mail & Guardian, but did not provide any replies by the time of going to print.
Caught in the middle was subcontractor Shatsane, a black-owned and black-managed business with just under 60 employees, the kind that every empowerment policy is intended to support. Things did not go that way.
“We were spending all our time with these battles with creditors,” says Letlape. “The company almost went under. We rented out some of the trucks and equipment we had, and got a little cash from that.”
But in the absence of the money it has now twice confidently expected to land imminently, the company is not entirely guaranteed a future. Nor is it entirely sure there will be consequences for those responsible.
“It seems you can just ignore these things until the people who claim the money go away,” says Letlape.
Zuma’s interpretation of what Madonsela said
“I am telling the people of South Africa I never lied,” President Jacob Zuma emphatically told Parliament on Tuesday. He had, in fact, just misrepresented a finding by the public protector.
Neither the public protector nor the Constitutional Court had ever found that he had lied to Parliament, Zuma said during a question and answer session in Parliament, when in 2012 he had insisted his family had paid for his family’s dwellings at Nkandla.
In reality, public protector Thuli Madonsela’s finding was not nearly so blunt.
“President Zuma told Parliament that his family had built its own houses and the state had not built any of it or benefited them. This was not true,” Madonsela wrote in her report entitled Secure in Comfort on Nkandla.
Madonsela said she accepted Zuma’s explanation that it had been a mistake and while it could legitimately be seen as misleading Parliament, it did not amount to an ethical violation.
Zuma also insisted that Madonsela’s report did not deal with houses, when it did, and stressed that his family had been found to have benefitted “indirectly” from state spending on security.
In fact the idea of indirect benefit never appears in Madonsela’s report, although both “improper” and “undue” benefits do.
Four days prior to Zuma’s appearance in Parliament, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said a public protector report had found allegations involving her unsubstantiated, when in reality those allegations had in fact been substantiated.
Molewa also insisted that there had been no abuse of state resources in the incident investigated, when in fact the protector found the exact opposite.