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Here’s why public protector was probing Free State drought fund

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Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane has dismissed claims made by a whistleblower of fraud, corruption and mismanagement of drought relief funds by the Free State office of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, saying there is no sufficient evidence.

The complaint was lodged anonymously with the Office of the Public Protector on August 20, 2018.

In a report released Monday, Mkhwebane said the allegations could not be substantiated and she was satisfied with the evidence presented by state officials.

“I . . . could not find any improper conduct or maladministration on the part of the department in relation to the complaint,” Mkhwebane said in her 26-page report.

The complainant alleged that drought relief amounting to R11 million was approved by the director general of the National Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, Mdu Shabane, on January 13, 2016 for a feed mill and the lucerne processing plant to be constructed in the Virginia/Welkom area.

However, according to the whistleblower, the funds were not used for this purpose.

The complainant further alleged that the chief director of the national department, Pule Sekawana, had requested another R1 million after he appointed a service provider to construct the feed mill in the Wepener area instead.

It was also alleged that only one quotation was submitted for approval by Sekawana.

Also according to the whistleblower, the successful company was owned by the brother of the chief director of the department.

It was further claimed no transparent procurement processes were followed in the appointment of the service provider and that other service providers were excluded from the process.

The public protector set out to investigate the possibility of maladministration, irregular procurement and nepotism in the implementation of drought relief interventions by the department.

“The department did not dispute that no tender process was followed,” Mkhwebane said.

“However, the department contented that deviation from normal procurement processes were approved by the director general of the National Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.”

She said her inquiry essentially sought to establish whether or not the department acted improperly in the management of the drought relief intervention and specifically in respect of the construction of the feed mill in the Wepener area.

Initially, the plan was to expand a feed mill in the Virginia/Welkom area at a cost of about R5 million.

Upon further considerations, the idea was set aside due to the poor performance of that feed mill.

It was found the feed mill operator had difficulties meeting the requirements of the provincial department around 2014.

It was further submitted that the construction of a lucerne processing plant would cost R6 million.

However, on January 23, 2017, Vuna Afrika Agriculture, the only service provider approved, submitted an invoice of R12 032 174.46 for the construction of a five-tonne-per-hour animal feed plant on Wilgedraai Farm owned by the department in Wepener.

It would have a storage facility measuring 30m x 60m x 9m.

The quotation was more than the R11 million initially approved by the director general of the department but officials are said to have accepted it as it did not exceed the total budget approved for drought intervention in the Free State which was R70.16 million.

“The department was of the view . . . that it was the total amount of R70.16 million that should not be exceeded,” the public protector heard.

On February 16, 2017, Vuna Afrika Agriculture was paid R11 million by the national department.

An additional payment of R1 032 174.46 was approved on April 24, 2017.

When officials from the public protector’s Free State office visited Wilgedraai Farm to inspect the project, they found a pelletising machine on site but it was not erected or operational.

The shed was constructed but the feed mill was not erected either.

The department is said to have indicated they were still awaiting an environmental approval before work could proceed.

The public protector concluded that the deviation from the normal procurement processes was followed in terms of the Public Finance Management Act.

“The department submitted proof that they consulted with service providers on their procurement database and requested quotations from them for the different services in terms of the deviation approved by the DG of the national department,” Mkhwebane pointed out.

“The national department explained and submitted evidence as to the reason why the erection of the feed mill was moved from the original area envisaged to the Wepener area.”

On whether the chief director of the department irregularly appointed his brother’s company to construct the feed mill, Mkhwebane said Sekawana indicated he did not know the owners of the company.

“Mr Sekawana responded on 15 June 2019 that he is not familiar with the owners of the service provider,” the public protector said.

“He submitted that they occupied a state farm before they were employed at the department.

“He submitted that none of the members in the cooperative are related to him directly as siblings or indirectly as his cousin brothers.”

Mkhwebane said given that the complainant chose to remain anonymous, she could not present the evidence given by the department and its officials to the whistleblower to test its veracity.

“Although the feed mill was not constructed yet, awaiting environmental impact assessment approval, it is on the farm of the department and therefore an asset . . .” she said.

“The allegation that the chief director Mr Sekawana appointed his brother’s company to construct the feed mill is not substantiated by any evidence.

“I accordingly could not find any improper conduct or nepositism on the part of Mr Sekawana.”

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Masks no longer mandatory when outdoors

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South Africans will no longer be required to wear masks while outdoors, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Tuesday night when he gave an update on national efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

The wearing of masks indoors however remains mandatory.

“As before, it is mandatory to wear a cloth mask or similar covering over the nose and mouth when in public indoor spaces,” said Ramaphosa in a televised address.

“However, a mask is not required when outdoors,” he added.

“This means that we still need to wear masks when in shops, malls, offices, factories, taxes, buses, trains or any other indoor public space.

“But we do not need to wear masks when walking on the street or in an open space, when exercising outdoors or when attending an outdoor gathering.”

The president said after four waves of infection, fewer people are becoming severely ill and requiring hospitalisation.

He said there are far fewer deaths than before.

“Our scientists tell us that this is mainly because some 60 to 80 percent of the population has some form of immunity to the virus, either from previous infection or vaccination . . . we are now ready to enter a new phase in our management of the pandemic,” said Ramaphosa.

About 48 percent of all adults are believed to have received at least one vaccine dose.

Further to that, both indoor and outdoor venues can now take up to 50 percent of their capacity provided that the criteria for entrance are proof of vaccination or a COVID-19 test not older than 72 hours.

“But where there is no provision for proof of vaccination or a COVID test, then the current upper limit will remain – of 1 000 people indoors and 2 000 people outdoors,” he explained.

This change to the restrictions on gatherings, according the president, will be of great benefit to the sporting, cultural, entertainment and events industries, among others.

The maximum number of people permitted at a funeral will increase from 100 to 200.

However, night vigils as well as after-funeral and ‘after-tears’ gatherings are still not allowed.

The regulations on social distancing are also being changed, requiring that a space of one metre is maintained between persons in all settings except schools.

There are also changes to the regulations on international travel.

Travellers entering South Africa will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test not older than 72 hours.

All unvaccinated travellers entering the country who want to be vaccinated will be offered a vaccination.

All measures are taking effect from this Wednesday.

Ramaphosa said in deciding which restrictions to ease and which to keep in place, they  also looked to the experiences of other countries, including those where the complete lifting of restrictions has been followed by a surge in infections and deaths.

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Man gets six life terms for raping own daughter

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A 36-year-old man from Clocolan has been sentenced to six life terms by the Free State High Court after he was found guilty of raping his 14-year-old daughter.

In a statement, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) said Judge Pina Mathebula sentenced the father, who cannot be named to protect the identity of his daughter, for raping her six times between May and July 2021.

“The victim was staying with the accused, his wife, who is her stepmother, and two other siblings,” read part of the statement issued by NPA regional spokesperson Phaladi Shuping on Thursday.

“In May 2021, the accused told his wife that his late brother told him in a dream ‘to get rid of a tokoloshe that was inside the victim’. The very same night of the alleged dream, the accused raped the victim. The last rape incident took place on 25 July 2021,” added the statement.

The court, sitting in Ladybrand, heard that the wife tried to reprimand him but he assaulted her.

As if not enough, he overpowered and raped the victim, despite her cries and his wife’s reprimands.

He threatened to kill both of them if they were to tell anyone of what he did.

A day later, the accused’s sister visited the family and the wife told her what the husband had done to the child.

The sister reported his brother to the police and he was arrested.

In aggravation, state prosecutor Advocate Moipone Moroka submitted a victim impact report facilitated by Bulelani Mothabeng in which the victim said that she thanks her aunt for coming to her rescue because if it was not for her, she would still be her father’s sex slave.

Moroka further argued that the scourge of violence against women and children has reached an alarming proportion and can be described as a pandemic.

“What aggravates the matter is that the father raped his own daughter multiple times over a period of three months and this means he had ample opportunity to reflect on his actions, but he continued betraying the trust his daughter had in him,” said Moroka.

The father was sentenced to six life sentences for rape and two years for assault and the sentences were ordered to run concurrently.

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Premier mourns journalist

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Premier Sisi Ntombela has described the late SABC journalist Thabo Katsande as a disciplined, dedicated and hardworking man.

She said this in her special tribute to Katsande, who was based in Bloemfontein, during a memorial service held at the Rose Hall at the Mangaung Metropolitan offices on Thursday.

The journalist passed away at a Pretoria hospital last Saturday following a short illness.

“The Thabo I knew was focused on his work,” said an emotional Ntombela.

“The Thabo I knew was passionate about his trade and wanted to see journalism, particularly in the Free State, grow in leaps and bounds,” she added.

The premier took the opportunity to urge people to value their work and strive to improve their communities as the province is faced with a high unemployment rate.

“We live in an era where some people do not value their jobs . . . and a sense of entitlement has consumed them. Thabo’s work ethic was admirable,” she pointed out.

Ntombela described Katsande as a fearless and fair journalist who showed both the good and the bad through his work.

“Through his work, Thabo helped us to tell . . . the Free State story,” she said.

“He captured the minds of the people with the way he told our stories, the good and the bad.

“The beautiful and the not so beautiful – Thabo told it all, without fear or favour.

“The media fraternity has lost a giant and . . . it will be poorer without him.

“No longer shall we see that charismatic man running around with a camera looking for that perfect shot.”

Katsande will be laid to rest in Bluemgumbosch, eastern Free State, this Saturday.

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