JOHANNESBURG, February 1 – The rot at the department of correctional services went further than just the Bosasa scandal, Congress of the People (Cope) spokesman Dennis Bloem told the state capture commission of inquiry on Friday.
Bloem said procurement laws were often flouted at the department, led by then correctional services minister Ngconde Balfour. Then prisons national commissioner Linda Mti was linked to multi-billion rand fraud and corruption at the department along with then CFO Patrick Gillingham. Bloem said his testimony corroborated that of former Bosasa COO Angelo Agrizzi on how MPs and prison officials received bribes from Bosasa to ensure that the company received lucrative contracts from the department.
”Nothing was done according to the book…it was a free for all. There was commissioner Khulekani Sithole [Mti’s predecessor]…it was havoc, chairperson. If investigators could go back… they will find more damning things than Bosasa…under the leadership of Sitole. When I raised concerns in meetings with minister Balfour, and also in one on one meetings with him [Balfour], these problems were never addressed,” said Bloem.
Bloem said Balfour protected Mti in meetings by jumping in to answer questions on Mti’s behalf.
”When I held meetings with the minister asking him to interfere at the department, he would tell me that operations should be left alone, and that Mti was a good comrade and should not be harassed…that was Balfour’s responses to me in the face of the deepening corruption.”
The former ANC MP was a member of correctional services committee in Parliament from 1994, and became its chairperson in 2004 until 2009, after which he joined Cope.
The late Vernie Petersen took over from Mti in 2007. His efforts to clean up the department and rid it of corruption failed as he was moved to the department of sport and recreation within a year. The MPs were never informed about Petersen’s removal, said Bloem.
”We learnt this from media…we were not taken into consideration about the issue, no reasons why were given to us about his deployment. He served between 2007 and 2008 and was gone. Petersen was the best commissioner for the department…he was a corruption buster…he hated corruption and was a straight forward person.”
In 2004, the department decided to outsource catering services, although it had farms where vegetables, meat and chicken were sourced and prepared by inmates themselves in prison kitchens. Bloem said there was no due diligence done on the outsourcing. Balfour and his officials ignored the committee’s concerns about the wasteful expenditure that ran into hundreds of millions of rand every year. Bloem said the committee asked why overcrowding in prisons and poor salaries for staffers were not prioritised over outsourcing, but their questions fell on deaf ears.
Bosasa was granted the catering contract at seven prisons initially, costing the taxpayer R89 million every year, said Bloem. He and members of the committee visited the prisons as part of their oversight work to witness work carried out by Bosasa. It turned out that the prisoners continued to cook and serve meals themselves, even though that task was outsourced, Bloem said, adding that the catering contract was ”money laundering”.
”Bosasa said they would take over kitchens and do the cooking….but this was a blue lie, chairperson. It was a money laundering scheme..Prisoners were cooking and dishing out food and are still doing it even today. Sondolo IT [Bosasa subsidiary] had an office in middle of the kitchen…it was there just to take the money…there was no labour from Bosasa. I visited these prisons and saw that myself.”
His inquiries as to who supplied the food to the kitchens were ignored by officials.
”No answer came on who was the supplier… but we know that the department has farms for vegetables and meat. Pietersen asked them why the outsourcing when there were farms. We raised this with Balfour… everyone was aware of what was happening.”
Commission chairman, deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo expressed shock over Bloem’s revelations that the department allegedly paid Bosasa for doing nothing.
”Are you saying that, if the contract is taken from Bosasa today, there would be no difference on the catering? Bosasa did nothing for millions of rands it was paid?”
Bloem replied: ”Absolutely no difference chairperson. Inmates are doing what they have been doing all along in the kitchens. Bosasa raked in almost a billion in tenders from the department at that time, targeting the large prisons in the country. The explanation for this tender was that the prison population was too large to handle and catering needed to be outsourced.”
A disturbed Zondo said investigators needed to probe Bosasa at the department.
”If what you just said is true, this is a serious concern in terms of taxpayer’s money. I hope investigators will urgently establish if this is still happening regarding the catering contract. It may be that some urgent steps need to be taken by the relevant authority. The commission might have to consider whether it has any powers or roles but I hope relevant authorities do not wait…but go verify so that this situation is dealt with urgently,” he said.
In 2005 Bosasa landed a fencing contract for prison premises across the country, followed by a television distribution contract tender to supply television sets for inmates. Bloem sad Petersen fought to have the contracts cancelled, and raised concerns about poor planning and budgeting by the department.
”The purchasing and installation of television sets cost R224 million….all that money wasted. Petersen openly accused some of officials of redirecting money for prison programmes to outsourcing and buying TV sets…he was against it. We were told that the TV sets were for educational development for the inmates, chairperson, that has ever happened even today,” Bloem said.
The then speaker of the National Assembly Max Sisulu and ANC chief whip Mbulelo Goniwe knew about the problems at the department but did nothing, He said. Instead, ANC members approached the then ANC secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe, asking him to remove Bloem as portfolio committee chairperson. Bloem said Motlanthe refused, telling them that the former was doing oversight work as mandated by the governing party.
”Whenever I was vocal about Bosasa…the chief whip [Goniwe] would call me to his office and reprimand me, saying what I was doing was wrong because we are ANC deployees. He said to me ”you are a deployee, not your own boss..you could be removed now”’.
”But what was happening was not ANC policy…it was greed. The ANC was respected widely, across the continent…Mandela and Mbeki held ANC values high at all times…the chief whip and all those members of the ANC were not following values and principles of ANC at all.”
In an emotional plea to Zondo, Bloem asked the commission to investigate the circumstances behind Petersen’s death. He said his death remained a mystery, and that his family needed closure and wanted to know what really happened to the late former prisons commissioner. (ANA)