Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail
ANC spoksperson Pule Mabe. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE/SOWETAN
ANC spoksperson Pule Mabe. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE/SOWETAN

Being the mouthpiece for politicians is clearly a risky business. 

Ever since November 2004, when ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama, defending a windfall for his part in a Telkom empowerment deal, said he “did not struggle to be poor”, it seems as if a generation of his successors has been striving to live up to that ethos.

Last year Khusela Diko, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, was suspended after it emerged that her late husband had scored multimillion-rand tenders to supply PPE to Gauteng’s health department, headed by her friend Bandile Masuku. 

This was followed by revelations at the Zondo commission that Zizi Kodwa, the ANC’s spokesperson between 2014 and 2017, got R375,000 from a director of EOH, the technology company which had scored a raft of corrupt government tenders.

Now Pule Mabe, Kodwa’s successor as ANC spin doctor, is under the spotlight over a shady R27m contract the Gauteng agriculture & rural development department gave to a company called Enviro Mobi in 2017.

Mabe created Enviro Mobi, but he later quit as a director and left it to his cousin to run, even though he apparently kept the valuable intellectual property rights.

In a nutshell, the deal was that Enviro Mobi would provide 58 waste pickers in the Ekurhuleni municipality with 200 three-wheeler tuk-tuks, known as karikis. But even though Enviro Mobi didn’t deliver those tuk-tuks, the next year the Gauteng government agreed to pay R7.8m for another 70 karikis.

Last week the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) said it was investigating to “determine whether the procurement and payments made in relation to the three-wheel waste collection vehicles tender were done in a manner that was not fair, transparent, or contrary to applicable legislation”.

Even if Mabe hadn’t been involved, the deal would still have been riddled with red flags. For a start, the Gauteng government fell over itself to pay Enviro Mobi before anything was close to being delivered.

One SIU investigator told the Sunday Times this week that Enviro Mobi sent its first invoice to the government on the day the deal was signed, March14 2017. “The money was paid into the account 10 days after – R16.5m of the R27m,” the investigator was quoted as saying. “There is no way that you would have delivered anything [by then].”

Mabe is apparently telling those around him the timing of the SIU investigation was suspect and that it “pointed to a ‘political machination’ at play,” according to the Sunday Times. The theory here is that Mabe’s allies are at loggerheads with Gauteng premier David Makhura, who apparently wants to neutralise his opponents.

It’s a predictable claim, but the fact is that this investigation has been going on for two years. Already before that, in 2018, the deal was comprehensively exposed by the Mail & Guardian newspaper. (Even after these tuk-tuks had been paid for, the paper reported how they were still languishing in Enviro Mobi’s Krugersdorp factory, incomplete and vandalised.)

So, if the deal was crooked, it was crooked; “timing” has nothing to do with it.

Living on R72 a day

There is another unsavoury element to it, however. 

What makes this particular deal especially sordid is that it involved money being squandered that was earmarked to help society’s most vulnerable: SA’s 60,000 waste pickers, who scrape by on a pittance, waking up before dawn to collect cardboard, plastic and paper, which they drag on trolleys to recycling centres.

According to this journal article from 2018, based on interviews with 873 waste pickers from 13 SA cities, they make, on average, just R72 a day – despite the fact that “some street waste pickers start as early as 2am” and work 9 hours a day.

For greater insight into how gruelling their lives can be, read this article by Tanya Farber. 

Waste pickers are also an indispensable pillar of SA’s environmental ecosystem.

Melanie Samson, a senior lecturer at Wits University, put it like this in one of the university’s newsletters: “The reclaimers collect around 80% to 90% of all post-consumer packaging and paper left behind. If they stopped tomorrow, there would be no recycling industry in SA.” 

So you’d have to say that anyone looking to make a quick buck off this particular impoverished group would have to be especially cynical.

And it speaks volumes that the government believed that the very best way to help them out was to buy 200 adapted tuk-tuks for R135,000 apiece, effectively. Which, as luck would have it, had just been created by one of the most powerful members of the ANC.

In one of the original Mail & Guardian articles, it was clear that several of the waste pickers were quite despondent about the broken tuk-tuk promises.

For a person to come and say they will do this for us, and not deliver, they are killing our business and our hopes,” said Duduzile Mchunu from the Lakhwisha Waste Co-operative in Vosloorus. Salphy Nkoana from the Masupatsela Waste Co-operative in Tembisa described how at one point in 2017, Enviro Mobi did actually deliver three of the scooters. “But then they took them back for one of the launches. Since then, nothing,” he says.

It’s perhaps equally unsurprising that these launches were described by the Mail &Guardian as “mere publicity stunts”.

So, while Mabe may claim it’s a “politicised” investigation, the tuk-tuk story instead reeks of a “politicised” transaction, with millions flooding out of the province’s coffers to prepay for something that never arrived from an unusually well-connected company. 

It’s an eerily familiar story too — and not just to the ANC’s spin doctors.

To get back to Ngonyama’s argument, nobody said you needed to be poor simply because you were part of the struggle. But scoring lucrative deals unavailable to everyone else, because of your proximity to political power and at the expense of those you’re meant to be helping, contradicts everything the ANC says it stands for.

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