19 May 2024 | 08:23 PM

More dark clouds over controversial Operation Hlasela

Key Takeaways

The Free State’s mysterious Operation Hlasela, under investigation by the public protector, appears to have been “sold” to the Northern Cape by businesspeople closely linked to Free State Premier Ace Magashule.

A Mail & Guardian investigation revealed that the Northern Cape government of Premier Hazel Jenkins earmarked R320-million for a Hlasela clone called Pula Nala — “abundant rain” — at least four months before she had access to the concept documents.

Pula Nala, projected as a social upliftment project, was “sold” to Jenkins by the chief executive officer of the Ace Magashule Foundation, Kenny Dichabe, and Magashule’s former personal assistant, Deenadayalan Pillay.

The M&G recently reported that Pillay had received Free State government contracts worth at least R200-million.

His wife, Ravathi, owns the beneficiary companies, Bombenero Investments and TAD Consultancy and Services, which he appears to run.

Jenkins has officially launched Pula Nala on two separate occasions: on March 21, Human Rights Day, in Upington, and again on March 28 in her home town of De Aar.

Unique

In her speech at the latter, she called the project “unique” and revealed that the provincial government would provide R320-million for present and future projects whose main objective was to improve service delivery and uplift socially disadvantaged communities.

Her spokesperson, Mafu Davids, said that Pula Nala was “a uniquely Northern Cape government initiative”, adding that the “insinuation” that Free State businesspeople were involved in it is “untrue, malicious and grossly misleading”.

Davids said the programme would be administered by the provincial treasury and funded solely by the Northern Cape government.

However, the M&G has seen emails from Dichabe to “Prabhu” at Bombenero — described by the Free State Times as an Indian national and the brains behind Pillay’s business interests — saying that “Operation Pula Nala is similar to Operation Hlasela — The proposal will be 100% based on the Hlasela television model”.

In another email, Dichabe said that the meeting with the premier (Jenkins) “went extremely well and her team loved the idea”. He said the next step was the finalisation of the Pula Nala corporate identity document, the presentation of the Pula Nala “television concept” to the Northern Cape executive committee, contracting and roll-out.

The Free State Times said the television concept involved the screening of pro-government messages on giant indoor and outdoor screens on municipal and government premises as well as in public places.

Apportioned

According to Jenkins’s speech, the R320-million earmarked for operation Pula Nala would be apportioned as follows: about R80-million for the Pixley ka Seme region, including De Aar, almost R70-million for Namakwa and about R56-million for Siyanda, including Upington.

A little more than R56-million would be for the John Taolo Gaetsewe region, including Kuruman, and about R54-million for the Frances Baard region, including Kimberley.

Operation Hlasela was launched barely a month after Magashule became Free State premier in mid-2009, with the professed aim of improving service delivery and addressing social deficits.

The source of Hlasela’s funding is unclear. Free State government spokesperson Wisani Ngobeni said that it was not a stand-alone project that required separate provincial government funding and was not located in the premier’s office.

He said the fund was driven by private-sector funding. But he did not answer questions about the identity of the donors and the size of their contributions.

The Free State finance MEC Seiso Mohai said that provision was made for Hlasela under the R221-million allocated to Magashule’s office for this financial year. In his budget speech in March this year, Mohai listed Hlasela as one of “the priorities funded over the medium-term expenditure framework”.

No allocation

But the spokesperson for the provincial treasury, Gunnett Kaaf, in response to questions, said that Hlasela had received no allocation.

The emails exchanged between “Prabhu” and Dichabe show that the businesspeople were still discussing the Pula Nala proposal with Jenkins in July, four months after the official launches took place.

Ngobeni said Operation Pula Nala was neither directed nor influenced by the Free State government. He added that Hlasela television was a way for the province to communicate with the masses on services delivery.

Despite the clear reference to it in the correspondence, Davids said: “Operation Pula Nala television is a figment of somebody’s imagination.”

Both Dichabe and Pillay failed to respond to detailed questions by the time of going to print.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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