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Politicians padding their own pockets through public works projects in S. Africa

"Politicians are only interested in making money," says Ephraim Dhlamini, a local farmer, on a ranch in Vrede in the central South African province of Free State on June 27, 2018. (Mainichi)

VREDE, South Africa -- In this small town with a population of less than 20,000, many farmers were glued to a speech by Mosebenzi Joseph Zwane, a powerful politician from the town in the Free State in central South Africa, in 2012. "This project is a project for you, to empower small black farmers," said Zwane, making a heated pitch for a "promising business" at a meeting in a local hall. It was a government-backed dairy farm, he explained, "and you will get a 51 percent stake of ownership in the project." It would create some 150 jobs and bring a clinic and roads to the small farming town.

Attracted by Zwane's assertion that the project was backed by the government, members of a local farmers' union signed up for the project one after another, as "beneficiaries."

The plan, however, never came through with its promises. None of the farmers received the five dairy cows they were each promised. Ephraim Dhlamini, 54, chairman of the local farmers' union, sought an explanation from a state official, but he was reproached and chased away from the meeting venue.

A government audit later found that those purporting to organize the project hadn't even bothered to submit a list of beneficiaries to the central government. A prosecutor in an ensuing trial pointed out that it was a classic embezzlement of public funds.

In this dairy farm scam, the project was planned as a joint venture between the state government and a company that was part of a corporate group close to then-President Jacob Zuma, for which the central government would provide a large sum of money. But according to prosecutors, of the approximately 220 million rand (around 16 million U.S. dollars or about 1.8 billion yen) wired from government coffers to accounts related to the company via the state government over a period of 2 1/2 years, only 1 percent was actually spent on managing the dairy farm. Eight people were arrested over the case this year, and the investigation continues.

Zwane, who pitched the project in Vrede, was minister in charge of agriculture in the Free State, and was later tapped to be the minister of mineral resources in the Zuma administration. Premier "Ace" Magashule of the Free State, who had approved the project, later captured the powerful position of the secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress. Vrede Mayor Tlokotsi John Motaung, who threw his support behind the project, said, "We have to admit the project has not been operated in a proper manner. I can understand if the project is criticized."

When Zwane was selected the minister in charge of agriculture for the Free State, many members of the Vrede farmers' union rejoiced. "He is from our community. He knows our problems and challenges. We expected he would change our life," a resident said. They pooled money to charter a bus, and traveled four hours to visit the state capital of Bloemfontein to attend Zwame's inauguration ceremony. "But we feel betrayed. The result is like this," said Meshack Ncongwane, 62, the union secretary.

This is just one of the many cases of fraud in South Africa, in which money taken from state coffers for the purpose of alleviating poverty among blacks is sucked into the bank accounts of people and companies with cozy ties to politicians from the ruling party.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Koizumi, Johannesburg Bureau)

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on the current situation of South Africa after the death of its first black president Nelson Mandela in 2013. This year marks 100 years since the birth of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

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