Who’s eating Cogta’s R13bn community work programme?

Facing an avalanche of allegations, the co-operative governance department has quietly launched a forensic investigation

 
CWP workers marched to the Cogta Headquarters in Pretoria in June 2019.
CWP workers marched to the Cogta Headquarters in Pretoria in June 2019.
Image: SUPPLIED

Government’s R4-billion-a-year Community Work Programme (CWP) is supposed to give a leg up to South Africa’s most marginalised communities.

 But many suspect it has become a feeding scheme for family and friends connected to the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) and for its implementing agents.

 “Most of the people that benefit from CWP are family and friends of these officials that already have jobs — paying jobs,” Velaphi Ndaba, a CWP site manager in Gauteng, alleges.

 The CWP provides temporary work and training to 259 000 people across the country — at a cost of R13-billion for the current three-year cycle.

 Although the CWP is funded by Cogta, it is run by 11 non-profit organisations that manage sites in 213 municipalities across the country.

 These implementing agents are responsible for procuring tools, materials, protective clothing and training. But as it is public money, they must appoint suppliers in a way that is “fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective”.

 As Ndaba sees it, there are “three mafias” — three favoured politically-connected implementing agents — that extract millions through these contracts, to the detriment of deserving small suppliers and the communities that are supposed to benefit from the CWP.

 A supplier from Gauteng, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their business and their safety, echoed this sentiment. “We end up sending hundreds of [bids] for no results. [In 2018] I used 35 reams of paper — seven boxes, fives reams in a box — in a seven-month period. I kept sending, sending, [responding to] every advert.”

 While some implementing agents were fair, they said, others simply shut the door: “Maybe I sent out 30 requests and got two, unlike some you send out 100 and got nothing. Most of these other guys their phones don’t even go through.”

 Upcoming investigations by amaBhungane and DispatchLIVE has found evidence that an implementing agent in the Eastern Cape awarded contracts for tools, materials and training to companies run by staff and family members, while CWP workers went without tools and even shoes.

 In October last year, two months after we started asking questions, Cogta quietly appointed Johannesburg-based MNS Attorneys to conduct a forensic investigation into the avalanche of allegations emerging about the programme.

MNS, which also conducted an investigation into state capture at Transnet, has been tasked with investigating “both current and previous CWP contracts” and “issues relating to irregular appointment of suppliers”, MNS director Nkosenhle Mzinyathi confirmed.

 But a secretly-recorded meeting suggests that Cogta knew that the programme was plagued with corruption for at least two years and seemingly took no action.

 “There is also a lot of thuggery that is taking place,” George Seitisho, then Cogta’s acting deputy director general in charge of the CWP, told implementing agents at a meeting in 2017.

 “[S]ome of the stuff that some of you guys in the room did, is really, really undesirable. You might have a few hundred people working for you, but down there things that have happened are really smelly.”

While Cogta’s inaction continued, dissatisfaction with the programme grew.

 In June last year, thousands of CWP workers, clad in their distinctive orange overalls, marched to Cogta’s offices in Pretoria. They demanded an overhaul of the programme, including either more than their R97.50 daily wage or better training to help them find more sustainable employment.

 “We understand the CWP was formed as a complimentary programme, not formal employment, but times have changed and participants are unable to exit the programme,” Ndaba said. “When we say they must exit, exit to where?”

 By this point, even government admitted the programme was failing.

“There are challenges with its model in its current form, CWP is not currently meaningful employment,” Cogta minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told the National Council of Provinces in July last year. “[T]here is little impact on the ground.”

 In August last year, CWP workers took their demands to the ANC’s door with a thousand-strong march to Luthuli House. A month later, when the party failed to respond, they marched again.

In frustration, one of Ndaba’s colleagues, Simphiwe Hlafa, told a journalist: “This is the last time we come here in peace; when we come here again we will vandalise.”

 “It was not a threat, it was a reality,” Ndaba told us when we met him in Ekurhuleni in October. “That’s the language that our government understands.”

 Ndaba showed us a letter from ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte urging the marchers to “exercise restraint” until the issues could be discussed at the party’s upcoming NEC meeting.

 Four months have passed since that meeting but the ANC is silent. Cogta, however, finally agreed to meet Ndaba and others on Monday in a bid to address their grievances.

But the groundswell from below is only half of Cogta’s problem.

 In August last year, the department told Parliament that two implementing agents — Icembe Foundation in KwaZulu-Natal and Out of the Box in Limpopo — had been suspended due to non-delivery, just one year into their three-year contracts.

 Cogta’s own due diligence found that Out of the Box only had four paid staff members when it was awarded the contract in 2018 and its headquarters consisted of a “back … room in a private home”. Despite this, Out of the Box scored 89 points out of 100 during the department’s bid evaluation process.

Icembe, which scored even higher, denied it had failed to deliver on the project but said it had decided to withdraw from CWP rather than face an uphill legal battle with the department. Extensive attempts to reach Out the Box for comment came to naught.  

 These details were revealed in court papers filed in 2018 by Seriti Institute, an implementing agent that was not reappointed when Cogta awarded new contracts.

 In September last year, Seriti asked the high court in Pretoria to nullify all current three-year contracts based on evidence suggesting the tender process was manipulated. Judgment has been reserved.

 AmaBhungane sent detailed questions to Dlamini-Zuma in August last year.

 On 28 August we were promised a response “within the hour”. But since then the minister’s spokesperson, Lungi Mtshali, has ignored all attempts to contact him, including 13 phone calls, three SMSes, two WhatsApps and two e-mails, although he did manage to successfully pocket-dial amaBhungane reporters on three occasions.

 Cogta spokesperson Legadima Leso was more responsive but said he was not allowed to speak to the media as only the ministry could speak on behalf of the department.

 But before Cogta stopped talking to us last year, it agreed to comply with a Promotion of Access to Information (PAIA) request for records of contract awarded by the implementing agents for tools and materials, training and protective clothing. (Cogta did not give us the records for the two suspended implementing agents on the grounds that they were under investigation.)

 Today amaBhungane is publishing those records on its website

 If you have information that can help take this investigation forward,  let us know at www.amabhungane.org/newsroom/tip-offs/ or tipoffs@amaBhungane.org.

 For more on this investigation go to www.amaBhungane.org.

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit, produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB Supporter to help us do more. Sign up for our newsletter to get more.


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