25 May 2024 | 09:43 AM

Tender comrades part 1: Trailing the Juju tractor

Key Takeaways

Last November, amaBhungane reported that a fleet rental firm had paid what looked like kickbacks to a company associated with EFF leader Julius Malema — just before the firm won a R1.2-bllion contract from the City of Johannesburg.

The R500 000 that Afrirent paid Malema-linked Mahuna Investments appeared to confirm allegations that the EFF was using its position as kingmaker in some municipalities to influence and benefit from procurement.

But the denials came thick and fast.

Investigative journalism takes time and money. Help us do more. Be an amaB supporter.

The EFF claimed neither it nor its leaders had “anything to do” with the matter. The city commissioned an internal probe which cited officials saying they “were not pressured … politically”.

Afirent, for its part, denied having known about the link between Malema and Mahuna, claiming that it had paid the company for legitimate services on a separate contract that it, Afrirent, had for the supply of farming machinery in Limpopo.

Now, new evidence has pulled the rug from under the denials.

Afrirent, it appears, had a direct relationship with Malema and the EFF. The evidence is that it footed the bill for a tractor that the EFF donated to communities while electioneering last year. And it happens also to have paid a second company linked to Malema.

Afrirent’s Limpopo contract “alibi” appears equally wanting. After a lengthy search, amaBhungane has found no evidence that Mahuna performed work on that contract. And even if it did, a fee of R500 000 seems entirely unjustified.

Afrirent this week steadfastly maintained its denials, claiming amaBhungane was “being given wrong information”.

Malema, the EFF and Mahuna’s only director, Malema cousin Matsobane John Phaleng, have not replied to new requests for comment.

A week ago, days after we had contacted the party, Malema declared amaBhungane and the Daily Maverick, which has also published stories about Malema and Mahuna, “enemies of the revolution”.

Malema banned us from EFF events and said the party would “never answer any question” from us.

On the trail of the tractor

Just after Christmas last year, as the EFF geared into campaign mode, media reports showed Malema atop a brand new blue Farmtrac FT 6050, grinning as he presented the tractor to elderly residents of Seshego, his hometown on the outskirts of Polokwane.

The tractor will “make it possible for them to work the land”, Malema was quoted as saying.

Two days later, The Citizen carried another story of the EFF donating a tractor to the nearby Blood River community. A photograph from that day shows an identical DA-blue tractor under a red and black marquee brimming with EFF supporters.

Picture: @EFFSouthAfrica,Twitter.

Noting the striking resemblance, the Citizen article stated: “The tractor is either the same model, or just the same actual tractor, that was handed over to the Seshego community 6km away on Thursday.”

According to amaBhungane’s sources, the tractor – and in all likelihood it was the same tractor both times – was paid for by Afrirent.

The story of the humble tractor bolsters claims made in amaBhungane’s November exposé linking Afrirent to Malema and the EFF.

Then, we reported that Afrirent transferred R500 000 in two tranches to Mahuna, which is fronted by Malema’s cousin Phaleng but has been used as a “slush fund” for Malema and the EFF. (Recently, the Daily Maverick also published detailed allegations of Malema benefitting from Mahuna.)

Afrirent’s payments to Mahuna were in July and August last year, at key points in the procurement for the City of Johannesburg’s vehicle fleet – a process that was called into question by city officials and politicians.

After a failed tender process in which Afrirent scored badly, the city nevertheless gave Afrirent the contract using “Regulation 32”, which controversially allows one government body to piggyback on the contract of another without a new tender.

The EFF at the time denied influencing the award to Afrirent. “We don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. “None of your questions have anything to do with the EFF and its leadership. The individuals and companies you mention can speak for themselves.”

Afrirent at the time said it did not know that Mahuna was linked to Malema or the EFF, and that the money it paid Mahuna had nothing to do with its City of Johannesburg contract.

The company said via lawyers that it had paid Mahuna for work done in connection with a contract that it, Afrirent, had with the department of rural development and land reform to deliver tractors and farming implements to Limpopo communities. It subcontracted Mahuna “to provide training and logistics for the delivery and implementation”.

Afrirent would not provide amaBhungane with a full contract between Afrirent and Mahuna nor any invoices or proof of work.

Afrirent’s chief executive, Senzo Tsabedze, told amaBhungane at the time that “Afrirent or its directors does not have any relationship with any political parties or leaders but as a South African company that employs over 200 South Africans the company will have a vested interest in the state of the country.”

More recently, Afrirent, through PR company Vuma Reputation Management, denied donating the tractor to Malema or the EFF.

AmaBhungane put it to Afrirent that it sourced the tractor from a supplier and then passed it on to Malema and the EFF, to which it responded “we have not made any donation to any political party in exchange for contracts.”

We pressed further, asking if “Afrirent or Mr Tsabedze has made any donation at all (not necessarily ‘in exchange for contracts’) to any political party or politician?”

The company’s response: “no”.

This, however, is contradicted by the supplier of the tractor, Vukani Agri.

At the time, Vukani was the only official importer of Farmtrac tractors and held the distribution and marketing rights for Farmtrac products, which are manufactured by Indian company Escorts Agri.

One supplier has listed the Farmtrac FT 6050 4×4 with canopy, the model the EFF “donated”, at R324 000. Afrirent would presumably have got it at a wholesale discount.

A Vukani representative told amaBhungane that “the tractor was bought from us and we were asked that we deliver it very urgently just before Christmas. We were told the tractor was a donation to a community in Polokwane. We were given the address where we had to deliver, and the next thing there was an article in the media with Malema on the tractor.”

“Afrirent paid in full,” said the representative.

A former Vukani manager, Dewald Van Bergen, told amaBhungane that “everything happened through Afrirent”.

The tractor was ordered around Christmas and, said Van Bergen, “I had a hell of a lot of pressure to get that unit up to Polokwane.”

A former Afrirent employee familiar with the transaction confirmed that the tractor was paid for by Afrirent.

This employee and another person with direct information also said that Afrirent supplied over a dozen bakkies for the EFF’s election campaign.

Asked to confirm or deny this last allegation, Afrirent said that “it is incorrect to say that we rented vehicles on behalf of EFF. Vehicles were rented from us and the client who rented the vehicles from us has paid for the services and we have proof in this regard. We wish to reiterate that we never paid money to the EFF to secure tenders, or in exchange for any favour whatsoever.”

Another payment, another Malema company

Be that as it may, amaBhungane is aware of evidence that Afrirent funnelled more money – R150 000 in October last year, about a fortnight after Afrirent’s appointment by the City of Johannesburg – to Santaclara Trading, another company closely tied to Malema.

Santaclara shares a name with the Cuban town that houses Che Guevara’s mausoleum.

In December last year, shortly after coming under the media spotlight, Mahuna changed its name to Rosario Investment – this time borrowing its name from Guevara’s birth city in Argentina.

But there is more than ironic revolutionary symbolism linking the two companies.

Santaclara made news in 2015 when media reported that a car bought for Malema using party funds was registered in the name of Voorsprong Trading and Projects, as Santaclara was named at the time.

City Press, which ran an article making the connection, later published a correction in which EFF’s Fana Mokoena was cited as saying that: “This was not a secret, it was an over-the-counter transaction … this vehicle was bought by the EFF and registered with a proxy company.”

Santaclara’s founding director is one Tebatso Kubus Malema, who in company records gave his address as the Seshego home where Julius Malema grew up. This remains Santaclara’s registered address.

Santaclara’s current director, 27-year-old Phumi Jimmy Matlebyane, appears, in part because of a shared birthday, to be the same Jimmy-fire Malema on Facebook who DJs at a Polokwane party venue called Mekete Lodge – a business venture run by the Malema family.

The Daily Maverick reported payments from Mahuna of over R2-million to Mekete Lodge.

According to company registration records, Matlebyane has listed 49 Edward Rubenstein Drive in Sandown, Johannesburg, among his residential and business addresses. Malema rented this property before the EFF bought it in 2017.

Matlebyane did not take amaBhungane calls or respond to a request for comment sent via the EFF.

Though the coincidence of Afrirent unwittingly dealing with two Malema-linked companies appears to stretch credulity to the limit, Afrirent this week maintained that, again, it did not know.

“In respect of Santaclara, as we have indicated before, perhaps we may not have a presence in the marketplace similar to some of our competitors, but Afrirent is a sizable company and has many service providers across the country.

“AmaBhungane expects Afrirent to have information about whether its service providers pay taxes or what they do with the money received from Afrirent for services rendered or who are they associated with politically.

“This is simply impossible, and is not required of us. We are free to use whichever service providers we wish… Afrirent is not aware of any ‘EFF links’ to Santaclara. But importantly, Afrirent is not required to ascertain in advance whether any service provider or customer has any ‘links’ to any political party.”

Afrirent did not respond to a question what it had paid Santaclara for.

The alibi at the end of reason

As we have seen, Afrirent’s explanation for it’s R500 000 in payments to Mahuna was that it had subcontracted Mahuna to help out on it, Afrirent’s, contract with the department of rural development and land reform in Limpopo.

Perhaps the most complete version of Mahuna’s supposed work for Afrirent is contained in the City of Johannesburg’s report of its internal investigation, which was released in March this year. It cited Afrirent’s chief executive:

“Tsabedze indicated that initially, Afrirent used their suppliers to deliver the implements and machinery to the farms in Limpopo [at] an additional cost and Afrirent’s Project Managers provided the training, however, this proved to be counter-productive and costly as there was a language barrier between the Project Managers and the members of the cooperative at the farms.

“The project managers employed by Afrirent were White Afrikaners and the farmers receiving the implements spoke Venda, Tsonga or Pedi. Therefore, Mahuna Investment, a company in Limpopo was contracted to provide logistic and interpretation services to Afrirent at a reduced cost and are 100% Black owned.”

To test this version, we started by looking at when Mahuna would have provided the claimed services.

Before our November article, Phaleng, the Malema cousin and Mahuna director, told us: “We provided services to Afrirent from May until August 2018.”

Afrirent told us via its lawyers at the time: “Mahuna issued three invoices on 1 May 2018, 1 June 2018 and 1 August 2018 in the total sum of R500k… The work in Limpopo was awarded [by the department to Afrirent] on 17 October 2017 on an ‘as and when basis’ for a period of 36 months. The first request came from the Department in April 2018 once the Department’s budget had been allocated in March 2018.”

Given Afrirent’s version that the relevant requests from the department started in April 2018; its chief executive’s version that Mahuna was not used at first; Mahuna’s version that it performed the work between May and August 2018; the stated invoice dates of May to August 2018; and the fact that Afrirent’s payments to Mahuna were in late July and late August 2018; the timeline of Mahuna’s “services” to Afrirent is clear: May (or at a stretch April) to August 2018.

Next, we obtained records from the rural development department detailing Afrirent’s delivery of tractors and farming implements in Limpopo, including Afrirent’s invoice dates and amounts.

What did all this evidence show? Between April and August 2018, Afrirent had made only two sets of deliveries, both in July, to Limpopo communities. The princely total value of Afrirent’s invoices to the department, including the cost of the equipment? R519 522.

That Afrirent should in turn have paid Mahuna R500 000 for helping out with logistics and translation requires an impossible leap of imagination.

In response to questions, Afrirent this week said that amaBhungane was “being given wrong information about Afrirent’s contracts with the department of rural development”.

However, it would not supply details of the work it claims Mahuna did, nor evidence contesting the department’s figures.

Afrirent maintained that the claim it paid kickbacks on the Johannesburg contract was “strenuously denied and is utterly false”.

Despite having itself raised the alibi of the Limpopo contract, it now said: “Despite factual evidence placed before Amabhungane, it appears you have, without foundation, concluded that, although the [City of Johannesburg] did not rely on the existing contract between Afrirent and the Department of Rural Development when appointing Afrirent, Afrirent has done something untoward.

“We, therefore, do not understand the relevance of business transactions between Afrirent and service providers in the Department of Rural Development contract.”

But we had one final test: Was there evidence on the ground of Mahuna having done any work?

In January this year amaBhungane was able to locate some of the equipment at a farm in Tshakuma near Thohoyandou. Nobody we spoke to there, including members of the agricultural co-operative that received the goods, had heard of Mahuna or Phaleng.

After the department disclosed the ten locations it had targeted to support emerging farmers, amaBhungane tracked down more beneficiaries.

One beneficiary who did not want to be named because he was still awaiting delivery of goods, told amaBhungane that he began receiving equipment last year; that his only interactions were with the department and Afrirent, and that the latter only provided a brief demonstration of how to use the equipment.

Asked about Mahuna, he said, “I’ve never heard of that company.”

The founder of Nsete co-operative near Polokwane, Matthews Ledwaba, told a similar story.

He said “some fleet company” made the delivery, gave a brief demonstration of how to use it, and took a few photos. The number of the fleet company he provided belonged to Afrirent.

AmaBhungane also spoke to two Afrirent sources familiar with the contract. According to them, the contract was a supply and delivery contract, and the logistics and limited training were carried out by Afrirent and Landini, the supplier.

“It was impossible that anyone else had done anything,” said one.

A Landini representative also denied knowledge of Mahuna.

The mysterious Malema company was nowhere to be found.

Afrirent maintained: “It is unclear to us how you would conclude that Mahuna did ‘little work’, because the recipients were ‘only aware of Afrirent’s representatives’. Of course, Mahuna did the work on the basis of a contract they had with Afrirent.”

Investigative journalism takes time and money. Help us do more. Be an amaB supporter.

Share this story:


Warren Thompson and Micah Reddy

Your identity is safe with us. Email or Call us


Related Stories