/ 2 July 2020

Corruption allegations: It’s a family affair at Dihlabeng municipality

Lindiwe Makhalema
‘They are thumbsucking’: Bethlehem mayor Lindiwe Makhalema is facing a plethora of allegations relating to abuse of office, but denies that her family is benefiting from a municipality-owned farm.

From farms to tenders and jobs, the relatives and their friends of Bethlehem mayor Lindiwe Makhalema have benefited greatly from the four years she has been at the helm of the Dihlabeng municipality. 

An investigation into a raft of allegations against Makhalema and her alleged abuse of office has found that the mayor’s family has allegedly been using land that was bought for a poor community, tenders have been awarded to her cousin’s wife and her brother’s close friends, and family members have landed jobs in the municipality. 

The story begins about 10 years ago when the state bought about 1 700 hectares of the Zandvallei Slabbert farm from its owner to ensure the community that had been living on the farm for decades would not be evicted. The farm is about 10km from Bethlehem. Its entrance is through an old gate that is falling apart — a feature of many of the homes on the farm.

Life on the farm

One of the residents who lives on the farm said life in shacks was hard enough, with no water or electricity, but watching Makhalema’s family receive the benefits of the land the state bought for them was worse. 

None of the residents living on the farm agreed to be named, saying they feared they would get hurt if Makhalema found out they told the Mail & Guardian about the situation. 

One said: “We do hope you can help us. The mayor told us that the property no longer belonged to the municipality, but to a private owner. This turned out to be lies. The only reason why she told us this was because she has made herself a beneficiary of the farm as well.” 

They added: “Even the kids of the former owner declared that the farm falls under the municipality. The mayor’s family uses the farm like it’s their own and when we ask questions she always makes promises.”

When Makhalema was asked about this accusation she denied having anything to do with the farm. “I don’t have any farm that I am owning. There is no [truth] that I own anything there. They [the allegations] are unfounded. They are not true. They are thumb-sucking,” she said.

The mayor’s brother, Felix Khambule, had a different story, saying that the family was renting from the owner of the farm.

According to records, the previous owner of the farm died 12 years ago and the state paid R900 000 for the farm. When Khambule was pressed for further details, because there were no records at the municipality of the farm’s rental, he asked to end the interview.  

Sitting on a brown couch in a darkly lit shack, another resident said that when water tankers arrive on the farm, they start with the house that is currently occupied by one of the mayor’s brothers. 

“We get water every three months, if that. The mayor’s family, the Khambules, also graze their cattle on this land forcing the community to smaller pastures. Through the years that the mayor’s mother lived here, she had chicken farms and now cattle that none of us benefit from,” said another community member.

Barely navigable: Bethlehem’s roads are beset by potholes, despite the fact that the municipality has paid more than R4.6-million for asphalt over the past couple of years.

The majority of people who live on the farm have no jobs. Those who are  employed do not make enough money to afford transport. There is no water or electricity. They have to fetch wood to cook. 

But less than 2km from these shacks, the home of the mayor’s family members sprawls on a plot. Near it sits a community hall that was allegedly used by the mayor’s brother for his wedding four years ago.

The municipal spokesperson, Tshediso Maitse, said: “The executive mayor denies all allegations levelled against her of ‘privatising’ state property, for hers and her family’s benefit.”

He added that there was a house and some other permanent structures on the farm that were built by the previous owners. 

“The building that is mistaken for a hall was actually a cattle barn that was modified. Occasionally it is used to hold church services or community meetings [that] are not specific to a political party. The building is not used commercially,” said Maitse.

During the course of the M&G’s investigation, three municipal members and one other official inside Makhalema’s camp confirmed the details of the farm and the allegation that her family are using it to their benefit.

Tenders to family

Makhalema is also related to Leppy Molehe, whose wife Melissa Molehe owns a company called Wealth In Tide.

This company was appointed as part of a panel of service providers for the supply and delivery of 25kg bags of cold asphalt on an “as and when required” basis for a period of three years.

According to the municipality, from 2018 to early 2020 the company has been paid more than R4.6-million for its work.

When Melissa Molehe was asked about this seeming conflict of interest, she asked where it states that she cannot do business with the state. At first she said “you have no business asking me about the work I do. I do not see anything wrong with it,” before dropping the call and refusing to answer further questions about her proximity to the mayor and how she was awarded the contract.

One official within the municipality was shocked to hear that almost R5-million had been paid for the asphalt. Bethlehem is the hub in a prosperous farming region of the eastern Free State. It has a Woolworths Food, a Nando’s and a private hospital. But its roads are barely navigable. 

“There are potholes everywhere here. Not only in townships, but also the main town, which used to be a great tourist attraction. Now it is going down the drain because of the mayor, who has been using state assets to enrich those around her. Why has she not declared any of this to the council?” asked the source.

But Makhalema claims that the regulations do not allow her to have any interaction with anything related to the administration of the municipality. “

All procurement is done in terms of the Municipal Finance Management Act, supply-chain management regulations and council-approved policy,” she said.

Another company that seemingly has connections to the mayor is Mojita Trading, which is owned by Melusi Mzizi. It has been established that he is a close friend and business associate to the mayor’s brother, Felix Khambule. 

Since 2017, the company has scored more than R4-million for various services, through short-term contracts. When the M&G contacted Mzizi, the company’s sole director, for comment he said the journalist asking questions was “drunk”. He did not address the concerns raised.  

Khambule (the mayor’s brother), on the other hand, said the last time he worked with Mzizi was a few years ago when they worked on an event together,and that he didn’t know what Mojita (Mzizi’s company) was.

“We established a co-operative years ago, but the company did not go anywhere. And that was the last we really worked together. But he is a guy around ekasi,” he said. 

But numerous people in Bethlehem, one who is a director of the co-operative, said the two are inseparable — doing business and numerous events together. A municipal source alleged that Khambule was using friends’ companies to benefit from the municipal contracts. 

Khambule denied ever doing work with the municipality.

Meanwhile, another relative of the mayor was recently appointed as a general worker at the municipality. 

The politics and municipal scandals

According to Makhalema, who was briefly suspended by the ANC two years ago for calling President Cyril Ramaphosa a sellout, she has done nothing wrong. 

Council members who the M&G spoke to said that if the mayor had nothing to hide she was meant to have declared her family interests to the council.

But this does not seem to have happened. 

Gerrie Roetz, a Democratic Alliance (DA) council member, said that last year the party’s council members sent questions regarding the allegations that the mayor’s family was using the Slabbert farm to the speaker, but that those questions were never answered.

In 2018, Makhalema also survived a motion of no confidence from the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters, which cited financial mismanagement. 

Last year, Dihlabeng municipal officials were arrested by the Hawks in connection with investigations into alleged fraud, corruption and the irregular awarding of tenders in the municipality.