No place for corrupt officials in Free State, says new premier

No place for corrupt officials in Free State, says new premierMxolisi Dukwana (left) during the ANC provincial leadership congress in the Free State in January. PHOTO: Refilwe Mochoari/Spotlight
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CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story we incorrectly stated that Head of the Free State Health Department Godfrey Mahlatsi is facing charges of fraud and corruption. In fact, he is facing charges of contravening the Public Finance Management Act. Spotlight apologises to Mr Mahlatsi for the error. We have also removed a picture, the placement of which may have been interpreted as suggesting that Mr Mahlatsi is corrupt.

In his first state of the province address, new Free State Premier Mxolisi Dukwana said the province will no longer be used as the breeding ground for corruption.

“It is imperative that we restore the integrity and credibility of our government,” Dukwana said. “We have experienced the painful truth that fraud and corruption are not victimless crimes.”

Dukwana also noted the various ongoing investigations across provincial departments and said these investigations must be finalised and recommendations must be implemented.

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‘No place for corrupt officials’

After being sworn in as the new Premier on 24 February, Dukwana told Spotlight that officials who have pending corruption cases against them and those who are attending court cases will be looked into as one of the new administration’s key priorities.

When asked how he will deal with the Head of the Free State Health Department Godfrey Mahlatsi, who has been charged with contravening the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), Dukwana said that the position is that those who are charged must at least be suspended from office. He said this applies to all provincial government departments and not just health.

At the time of writing, Mahlatsi was however still in the job.

We have experienced the painful truth that fraud and corruption are not victimless crimes. – Mxolisi Dukwana, Free State Premier

“We also have people who are not charged but are not doing what they are supposed to do yet they are getting salaries and all other benefits, so we need to look into all of these things,” Dukwana said.

Mxolisi Dukwana
Free State Premier, Mxolisi Dukwana after being sworn in as Premier earlier. PHOTO: Refilwe Mochoari/Spotlight

Mahlatsi had been acting as HOD since 2020 and in 2021 the previous premier, Sisi Ntombela permanently appointed him in the position despite having corruption allegations hanging over him.

Mahlatsi was investigated by the Special Investigating Unit for alleged PPE tender fraud relating to an amount of R39 million that was awarded by the provincial Treasury while he was the HOD in that department. The tenders were awarded to 32 service providers who allegedly supplied sub-standard surgical gowns to the health department.

SIU spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said the investigation has now been handed over to the NPA.

Responding to the premier’s statements, Mahlatsi said, “Look, I am an employee of government and the premier is my employer. If the premier decides to take any steps against any employee of government, it is within his right to do so. The decisions of the employer must at all times be respected.”

In addition to the SIU investigation, Mahlatsi has been charged with contravening the PFMA. This forms part of a larger case including the former Health HOD David Motau – who has since been fired from his post as the registrar of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) – and ten other officials in the provincial health department, relating to alleged corruption which led to an R8.7 million loss to the department.

Spotlight previously reported on Mahlatsi’s initial court appearance in February 2022.

According to the spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority in the Free State, Pheladi Shuping, the court case is still pending. He says a pre-trial conference was held on 13 February and is set to continue on 22 March.

Look, I am an employee of government and the premier is my employer. If the premier decides to take any steps against any employee of government, it is within his right to do so.- Godfrey Mahlatsi, HOD

Cleaning house

According to newly appointed ANC provincial spokesperson Jabu Mbalula, building an ethical public service cannot happen if there are questionable people with questionable standing running the government. “The issue of ethics and building an ethical public service is very important to us as the ANC, so those issues will have to be addressed,” he told Spotlight.

“We will ensure that the issue of senior managers who have corruption charges behind them will be cleaned out. It makes no sense to have people who are in charge of the affairs of society, yet they themselves have issues to answer either in courts and so on,” he said.

Dukwana said that the provincial government prioritised the implementation of lifestyle audits in accordance with the appropriate regulatory framework. “We are, however, not satisfied with our progress and will secure external assistance to accelerate the implementation of lifestyle audits,” he said.

Change of MEC?

While Dukwana was quite firm about the fate of corrupt officials, he would not be drawn on the fate of Montseng Tsiu, the provincial health MEC.

Following the election of the new provincial ANC leadership in January where Dukwana unseated Sisi Ntombela as ANC provincial chair, there was wide expectation that Ntombela and several MECs, including Tsiu, would be recalled.

Ntombela has since resigned.

Asked about Tsiu, Dukwana said nothing has been confirmed yet. “I will not be able to disclose such information at this moment,” he said, adding that they will consider everything and will come up with a team of men and women (provincial executive) who can do the job. “For now, I can’t say who’s going or who’s not going until everything is finalised.”

Free State Health MEC Montseng Tsiu. PHOTO: Free State Health/Facebook
Free State Health MEC Montseng Tsiu. PHOTO: Free State Health/Facebook

When asked about the performance of the health department so far, he warned against focusing on only one department. “The issue is, do we have an executive council that works together and make sure that all other things are done to get what we want objectively as a province? The department of health is important but without proper roads, ambulances will not be able to arrive at their destination. Without water and electricity, hospitals will not be able to deliver quality health services. Everything is interlinked. Without proper people working and providing services, you won’t have a properly functioning department,” he said. “So we need to focus on how we bring about community-centred services to our people and make sure that health is not only when you go to hospital. We should deal with many other things to create a healthy society.”

‘all talk, no action’

But some opposition parties remain sceptical.

According to DA provincial chairperson Roy Jankielsohn the party will hold Dukwana accountable for his statements on corruption.

“But we don’t think that the Premier will stick to his word because the people who are accused of corruption are from his own party – the ANC which is the majority. At the end of the day, we are still led by the same old corrupt ANC with corrupt officials.” Jankielsohn said we need people with the right qualifications and skills to be appointed to government positions.

“There is no element of him (Dukwana) being genuine about all of this,” EFF provincial chairperson Coach Liphoko told Spotlight. “He is only pushing a political campaign for the 2024 elections. The corrupt people belong to his party and he was supposed to act immediately when he took office but right now it is all talk and no action.”

Liphoko said he expects that Dukwana will not act on Mahlatsi. “He knows the culprits of corruption, including those who were involved in the Vrede dairy project and they are still occupying office. So no, the premier only wants to be seen as a person who fights corruption for the purpose of elections.”

The nursing union Denosa’s provincial secretary, Brian Motshabi said the union supports the premier in fighting corruption. “We hope he will fast-track the process as we have seen the impact of corruption on health services. It has collapsed our health system and all individuals who are implicated must account.”