Helen Zille on the wave of ‘innovative corruption’ that’s taking hold in SA

In this wide ranging interview, the Democratic Alliance’s Federal Chair Helen Zille digs into the concept of ‘innovative corruption’ which she says is increasingly applied by her party’s competitors. A case in point is the bizarre story of the Metsimaholo Local Municipality in the Free State where the DA had to go to court to block payments to a dodgy property developer that would have bankrupted the district. Zille has no qualms about the challenges that face SA in rolling back such corruption, arguing that the BOSASA-type plunder is not an exception but is the norm under ANC rule. She also shares the DA’s perspective on what is happening within the chaotic governance of Johannesburg – and the retirement from politics of the city’s former executive mayor Mpho Phalatse. – Alec Hogg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:09 – Introductions
  • 01:30 – Helen Zille on the mayor being reinstated in the Metsimaholo Local Municipality in the Free State
  • 02:43 – On the election in 2021 and how the DA got the mayorship
  • 04:02 – The situation of possible corruption in the Metsimaholo Local Municipality
  • 07:43 – On if anything else can be done to stop this money being paid to this developer
  • 08:18 – On the similarities to the Value Max story
  • 11:40 – On the possibilities that this could all be amended with the elections next year
  • 13:36 – Wanting to rerun the Nov 2021 election in JHB and the support from opposition parties
  • 15:41 – On the situation with ActionSA
  • 16:40 – Her response to Gayton McKenzie’s accusation of coalition talks with the ANC
  • 17:28 – Her thoughts on 2024
  • 18:42 – On Independent candidates and its place in next years elections
  • 19:09 – On Mpho Phalatse’s resignation
  • 20:21 – Conclusions

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Edited transcript of the interview with Helen Zille, chairperson of the Federal Council of the DA:

Alec Hogg: Helen Zille serves as the chairperson of the Federal Council of the Democratic Alliance. Today, our focus is on a lesser-known narrative surrounding the region to the south of Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark – the Metsimaholo Local Municipality in the Free State. This tale holds broader implications for South Africa. Once, the Democratic Alliance had control over the mayoral position, yet that changed when a member of the one-seat African Independent Congress was appointed bringing to mind parallels with Johannesburg. There’s also an intriguing situation revolves around a property developer who did a development without it going to tender. Could you update us on the current situation and explain why the DA mayor’s status altered?

Helen Zille: Certainly, Alec. Brace yourself, for the DA mayor has been reinstated. We contested the unjustifiable removal of the DA mayor through the courts and emerged victorious. Moreover, punitive costs were levied against the ANC speaker in his personal capacity. He is compelled to cover the expenses personally, given his involvement in orchestrating an illicit meeting that led to the unlawful displacement of the DA mayor. Consequently, the mayoral post in Metsimaholo has been reclaimed by the Democratic Alliance.

Read more: Helen Zille on Joburg chaos: Gayton “played” DA’s Moonshot partners, always defaults to supporting ANC

Alec Hogg: Let’s rewind to the November 2021 elections. The council has 46 seats – the ANC won 16, while the DA and EFF each garnered 12 seats. The Freedom Front won three seats, with three other minor parties—the African Transformation Movement and the African Independent Congress—securing one seat each. This collective scenario lacked a clear majority. How did the DA manage to secure the mayoral position?

Helen Zille: The DA gained the mayoral role owing to the deep-seated animosity between the ANC and the EFF. This enmity prevented either party from considering the other for the mayoral or speaker roles. We introduced Jeff Zwane as our candidate, and he emerged as the mayor. Thus, since November 2021 Jeff Zwane led a minority government under the DA in Metsimaholo, not through a formal coalition but as a minority administration.

Alec Hogg: Could you clarify why Jeff Zwane was temporarily dethroned and required legal intervention to regain his mayoral position? Did the EFF’s stance towards the ANC shift?

Helen Zille: Indeed, that’s the crux of the matter. Similar to other contexts, the EFF abruptly changes its allegiances, thereby altering the political landscape. This phenomenon is not unique. Smaller parties like the AIC also exhibit a certain fluidity based on their momentary interests.

Alec Hogg: Interestingly, the ANC and EFF aimed to appoint an AIC member as mayor, mirroring the situation in Johannesburg, where incongruous partnerships result in parties with minute vote shares obtaining pivotal positions, at least theoretically.

Helen Zille: The situation in Metsimaholo is distinctive, as comparing municipalities directly disregards their individual dynamics. In this case, Jeff Zwane clinched the mayoral position despite the DA having fewer votes — 12 compared to the ANC’s 16. As the ANC lacked an outright majority, they couldn’t independently secure the mayoral role. Their mutual animosity with the EFF precluded either party from supporting the other. Consequently, Jeff became mayor.

Subsequently, the ANC and EFF found a degree of common ground, albeit insufficient to endorse each other for mayor. This divergence led them to oust the DA from power. Our proactive measures, which included rectifying issues and exposing corruption, irked them.

The pivotal incident which emerged in Metsimaholo was when both the ANC and EFF championed disbursing tens of millions of rand to a property developer, despite no legitimate debt. Mayor Zwane highlighted that the municipality would suffer severe financial strain due to these unwarranted disbursements. We engaged our legal team. They scrutinised the documents and confirmed that the municipality bore no liability to the developer so no debt was owed.

This scenario echoes a recurring pre-election trend: the ANC, and perhaps now the EFF, require funds for campaigns, leading to dubious claims against municipalities. These claims facilitate siphoning millions from the public coffers under the guise of obligations. While direct evidence is elusive, questions arise regarding the urgency displayed by the ANC and EFF to channel tens of millions to this developer, despite the absence of any actual debt.

We sought legal intervention, resulting in an injunction against the disbursements. The ANC and EFF suddenly found common ground to eject the DA Mayor and usher in the AIC, presumably more accommodating to their financial objectives. Anticipating this outcome, we pursued legal action to thwart it, emerging victorious and thwarted the illegal removal of Jeff Zwane.

Read more: How opposition’s voices were harmonised into a Multi-Party Charter – Zanele Morrison 

Alec Hogg: Indeed, if they’ve aligned, it seems clear that his tenure will be short-lived. Is there any further recourse to prevent the disbursement to this developer?

Helen Zille: Certainly, we’re currently pursuing a conclusive interdict, seeking to formalise a court order preventing the transfer of funds to the developer.

Alec Hogg: This brings up an intriguing point. Just yesterday, we covered a story involving another developer, Valumax, operating in Gauteng. The Gauteng government has sanctioned billions worth of projects for them. Yet, they’re entangled in shady dealings associated with the ANC’s deputy president Paul Mashatile. It’s a reminder that the era of a singular BOSASA is likely far from the truth. We witnessed individuals within the ANC government who supported, benefited from, and protected such enterprises. You mentioned the property development firm in Metsimaholo. There may be countless similar cases yet to surface.

Helen Zille: Undoubtedly, if anyone believes these issues to be isolated, they’re truly misguided. Going back years, Kgalema Mothlante accurately noted that every ANC-led project was essentially a mechanism to enrich individuals within the ANC. The government facilitates projects that partner with external parties, benefiting both the ANC and individuals within government. Three interconnected circles—ANC, government, and business—converge, mutually reinforcing their enrichment. BOSASA isn’t an anomaly; it’s the norm. It merely represents one instance that was brought to light.

Alec Hogg: So why aren’t we witnessing more instances like Valumax or BOSASA, or this recent case —Lizelle Saketrust in Metsimaholo?

Helen Zille: The presence of in-depth insiders actively uncovering these matters is crucial. With the ANC and EFF, whistleblowers face marginalisation, ruin, and even death. Unlike the past, where individuals might be blacklisted and left unemployed, the current environment has escalated to murder. The Babita Deokaran case exemplifies this. Assembling a hit squad or hiring killers is distressingly easy. Corruption prevails as the norm where the ANC and EFF govern, and whistleblowers can anticipate an uncertain future. Gruesome tactics are employed; if the EFF wants a particular individual appointed via a selection panel, competitors receive intimidating calls, instructing them to skip interviews. Those who defy this order know it won’t end well. A litany of strategies and ploys exists, Alec, that would astonish you. The extent of innovation in corruption is truly mind-boggling.

Alec Hogg: What lies ahead? With an election slated for next year, could a change in government potentially reverse these issues? Can these developments be unwound?

Helen Zille: Addressing these challenges is undeniably complex. Labour laws in our country impede swift personnel changes, and reform must begin from the top. Dealing with corruption requires an approach that starts at the uppermost levels. However, evidence gathering is arduous, especially given its propensity to be destroyed. Whistleblowers’ lives are at risk, making it exceptionally difficult to speak out. Furthermore, removing individuals from underperforming positions, even when there’s evidence against them, can take years. A case in point is the Public Protector, where even a clear-cut case yielded prolonged proceedings. In my experience in Cape Town and the Western Cape, I inherited issues that were fixable despite being broken. We have gleaned valuable lessons from coalitions in Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, and Mogale City, understanding the immense challenges in effecting change. When voters fragment their support across multiple small parties, forming an unstable coalition becomes near-impossible. If these parties can shift allegiances at any moment, the task is further complicated. For meaningful change, a robust central pillar of principled integrity, represented by the DA, is vital. If voters persist in dispersing their votes among numerous smaller parties, genuine transformation remains elusive.

Alec Hogg: In Johannesburg, you have an interesting approach there essentially to re-run the November 2021 election in all the wards…..

Helen Zille: It’s a frequent occurrence, and it’s common in countries with coalition governments. When stability, ethics, and functionality are unattainable, as is the case in Johannesburg, the government dissolves, and elections are reconsidered. This isn’t unusual. In this instance, the voters have presented us with what we perceive as an unworkable scenario. Our share of the vote amounted to 26%. Had it reached 46%, the landscape would be vastly different. Yet, opposition votes fragmented across various parties, resulting in a coalition of six or seven tiny parties. These parties, each possessing one or two seats, hold the balance of power, rendering effective governance impossible. We decline to work with the Patriotic Alliance due to previous letdowns and various other reasons. Consequently, there’s no feasible path towards stable and ethical governance in Johannesburg. In such cases, it’s only logical to return to the voters and let them decide. Given the unplayable hand we were dealt, we invite the voters to provide a more viable solution.

Alec Hogg: Assuming other parties like Action SA lend their support, when might this process take place?

Helen Zille: As per the Structures Act, we’re allowed to table the motion two years after the election, commencing from the 2nd of November. We’ll propose this motion in the Council. The intention is to dissolve the Council, paving the way for a fresh election in Johannesburg. This election aims to yield a more functional governance arrangement.

Alec Hogg: Currently, Action SA is unhappy with your lack of support for their vote of no confidence. Could this create complications?

Helen Zille: No, they’ve withdrawn the motion of no confidence.

Alec Hogg: They seemingly withdrew it due to your lack of support, as I understand it.

Helen Zille: We asserted that there’s no viable path towards stable governance. The perpetual musical chairs exacerbate Johannesburg’s ungovernability. The continuous back-and-forth—one day in power, the next out—creates a disruptive cycle. Gayton Mackenzie has stated he’ll return with certain demands, but we’re resolute in not re-engaging. Such extortion and bribery politics further complicate matters. Therefore, we firmly state that there’s no viable route. We’ve attempted it three times, and we won’t board this rollercoaster again. Instead, we appeal to voters to make a decision.

Read more: Gayton McKenzie on the DA and ANC’s “Vegas” wedding plans

Alec Hogg: Gayton Mackenzie mentioned in an interview with my colleague Chris Steyn that you arranged three meetings between the DA and the ANC to form a post 2024 Coalition. Can you clarify this?

Helen Zille: I’m unsure of his statement. If he claims this, he must specify when, where, and why. This assertion is completely untrue, and I’m unaware of his reference.

Alec Hogg: Why would he make such a statement? Could someone in the ANC be stirring controversy?

Helen Zille: I’m clueless. However, if he believes that I’ve engaged with anyone from the ANC since shortly after November 2021 on these matters, he’s mistaken. I encounter individuals occasionally, attending events and meetings on other topics. But discussions about coalition partnerships aren’t among those conversations.

Alec Hogg: Looking ahead to 2024, how do you feel considering it’s not far away?

Helen Zille: Our team works tirelessly every day. If South Africa desires honest and competent governance, backed by stability, experience, and integrity, there’s only one party that fits the bill—the DA. The onus now rests with the voters. Critiques hold little weight if they abstain from the initial vote. We’re present, fielding candidates across the board, striving continuously for improvement. Rigorous selection processes are underway to identify top-tier candidates. We’re doing our part. Now it’s up to the voters.

Alec Hogg: Numerous newcomers, including Mmusi Maimane’s BOSA, are introducing impressive candidates within their independent factions. Additionally, Action SA is gaining momentum. Other parties are also raising their banners. Could this lead to South Africa becoming as ungovernable as Johannesburg and other regions?

Helen Zille: This underscores the need for a threshold. If Parliament becomes inundated with countless one-person parties, the national landscape will mirror the ungovernability evident in numerous local authorities.

Alec Hogg: Recent news mentioned Mpho Phalatse’s departure from politics. Not long ago, she contested John Steenhuisen for DA leadership. What prompted her decision?

Helen Zille: Mpho Phalatse isn’t leaving the DA. She remains dedicated to the party but aims to resume her medical career as a qualified doctor. While serving as the Johannesburg mayor, she temporarily put her medical pursuits on hold. As an ordinary councillor without a clear route back to power, she’s prioritising her medical profession. Balancing motherhood—likely with three children—and her responsibilities as a councillor and a clinician or medical administrator proved challenging. She’s opting to focus on medicine for now, a choice she’s made gracefully. There’s nothing unusual about such decisions. People often find it difficult to juggle multiple commitments, and this is a common occurrence.

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