Picture: DAILY DISPATCH/PHILLIP NOTHNAGEL
Picture: DAILY DISPATCH/PHILLIP NOTHNAGEL

The SA news cycle of the past week is, in many ways, The Tembisa 10: A Play in Five Acts:

Piet: Babies! Ten of them! Guinness World Record!
Gauteng health authorities: No evidence of babies.
Piet: Babies!
Family: No evidence of babies.
Piet: It’s a cover-up! Show us the babies!

It’s an exercise in deflection – a story that ends with Pretoria News editor Piet Rampedi demanding that the authorities bring out the very infants whose existence they questioned in the first place. Wheel out the mother, throw in a conspiracy theory, and you’ve got the Area 51 of familial events.

It’s the stuff of clickbait dreams. It’s also an object lesson in hubris.

Given how the story has gripped the public imagination – and how thick and fast the twists and turns have come – you may well believe that the Pretoria News is SA’s Roswell of reason. 

But that would miss the fact – happily, for some politicians – of the real epicentre of chaos in the country: the ANC’s Luthuli House.

A party at war with itself

For a start, there’s the ongoing legal battle between the ANC and its suspended secretary-general Ace Magashule. Don’t tell Cyril Ramaphosa (who has at last hit a sloth-like stride in effecting governance), but Ace reckons the president still ​ remains suspended. 

Then there are rumours that Magashule is fomenting service delivery riots against the ANC in the Free State. (To be fair, the utter lack of municipal action could mean Magashule, as he claims, has got nothing to do with any protests at all.)

And what of doughty MKMVA leader Kebby Maphatsoe’s stubborn refusal to accept the disbandment of his organisation? And rumours of threatened protests – “blocking freeways, staging demonstrations outside ANC offices and continuing the campaign to get rid of foreign shop owners” – from some of his KwaZulu-Natal supporters.

But perhaps the most telling sign of disorder in the ANC was the picketing this week of the party’s offices by its very own staff.

In scenes reminiscent of the great collapse of the This Day newspaper in 2004, the ANC paid its staffers their May salaries in mid-June. It reportedly also deducted PAYE and provident fund contributions – and medical aid contributions, according to some – without paying these on to the SA Revenue Service (Sars) or to the relevant third party.

It’s not the first time this has happened either. 

In December 2019 the ANC failed to pay its staff on time, with treasurer-general Paul Mashatile blaming late transfers from donors. When the same happened in June and August last year, it was the dastardly Covid.

Now, it seems, it’s a combination of a moribund economy (surely no fault of the ruling party?), the introduction on April 1 of the Political Party Funding Act (voted into law by none other than the ruling party itself – to its eternal regret, I imagine), and the need to “modernise operational and funding models”.

The staff will be gratified to hear the party is “committed to conclude the process of addressing this situation head-on and within the shortest possible period”. But it will be difficult to take that at face value, when you consider what little has been done so far.

As FM deputy editor Natasha Marrian writes in her column this week, the ANC’s finances were already a mess back in 2017, when the current crop of leaders took the reins after the Nasrec conference. 

Back then, outgoing treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize – who must owe Rampedi at least a few bottles of Purity as thanks for taking the heat off Digital Vibes – noted a debt of R215m. This despite collecting R2.6bn in private donations and R1.69bn from fundraising.

As the Sunday Times reported in May, Mashatile in late 2017 inherited an unpaid tax bill of R80m and R140m in provident fund arrears. 

Due to nonpayment, Sars slapped a garnishee order on the party’s electoral account last month, clawing back R17m. Presumably that’s the more immediate reason for the May shortfall.

A microcosm of government

There are a number of reasons (though perhaps not quite a decuplet of them) to be concerned by the ANC’s salary woes. 

First off, it’s deeply disturbing that a party that cannot manage its cashflow, to pay a staff of just 387, has at its hands the levers – and coffers – of an entire state.

 Just as problematic is that if the party has indeed withheld money from Sars, and failed to pay over provident and pension fund contributions, it’s surely in violation of the law. 

And if those criminal charges are brought, Magashule’s “step aside” travails will pale into insignificance.

There’s also the ANC’s complete oblivion to how money actually works; there’s something about the finite nature of the resource that seems to completely escape it. 

So while its top brass protest at the charge that “ghost workers” populate the ANC payroll, it readily admits that “when terms of officials at various levels have ended, we have chosen not to terminate the staff of office bearers, because this was the right thing to do. We have also continued to pay all our long-service staff-members, even those who have retired.”

Put more crisply by a Sunday Times source: “Staff is ballooning because officials come [into the organisation] with their own people who get permanent contracts and then, when those officials leave and the new ones come in with their own people, those ones remain because the company has got permanent contracts with them.”

It’s a monument to inefficiency. Even if the party has now decided to complete a second staff audit and ensure “that we have a staff that does a full day’s work”. Perhaps the rest can get a gig in the public service – they seem cut out for it.

Still, you do have to love the double-speak around this. The party is not broke, acting secretary-general Jessie Duarte tells us; it’s simply “got cash flow problems”. Equally, there are “no ghost workers”; there are just people who get paid for doing no work.

Put another way: there are 10 babies, they’ve just been hidden by the authorities.

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