Has Tokyo Sexwale unleashed the biggest crime hunt in domestic history?

JOHANNESBURG - Sometimes noisy headlines miss the bigger picture; worse, when "fraud" has become as commonplace in a country as sparrows strangling out twitters in the morning, the bigger picture can sink to the insignificant. Time will tell if

thousands of human vermin feeding off South Africa's housing challenges can be hunted down. The opposition is monumental . . . there are vested interests in every direction; these vermin are the size of bull elephants.

Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale this week shrugged off a trade union's call for his personal assets to be "nationalised", and remained focused on re-launching, with further detail, a war against corrupt private sector housing contractors, along with connected public servants, lawyers and estate agents. There are, of course, countless innocents among this bunching, but the targeted reprobates are also in very good numbers, responsible for monumental corruption, fraud and backlogs in delivering houses to South Africa's underprivileged.

Amid the stench, the housing audit is being led by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a division of the National Prosecuting Authority, and supported by the Auditor-General's office, plus all provincial government departments, Parliament's standing committee on public accounts, and the portfolio committee on human settlements. That is the combined war machine, but is it big enough, and does it have the resolve to face up to the savage ugliness that stolen billons always manages to build?

Make no mistake, billions of rands are at stake. Speaking at a media briefing on Monday, Sexwale noted that while government had built around 2.8m so-called RDP houses (accommodating some 13m people) since 1994, informal settlements continue to proliferate. That is only one issue. The audit is dealing with lots of foul things: nepotism in government departments, sloppy construction work, thousands of houses in tatters and ruins, and the persistent awarding of government contracts to the same twisted packs of stinky contractors.

Sexwale, who has had a long and interesting career in politics, and a shorter and equally interesting one in business, smashed the gong: "We can assure those who are involved in dodgy deals that there will be no place to hide. We are dealing with public money. Heads are going to roll. There are rotten people who have taken advantage of the public sector, and that way public finances get squandered".

Housing delivery is a quagmire crawling with swamp rats and other vermin: fraud, corruption, absentee contractors, unfinished ‘ghost' houses, and corruption related to housing waiting lists. The SIU has already whet its appetite in the area, having spent the past few years recovering around R20m from hundreds of public servants who simply stole housing subsidies, month after month, subsidies destined for the poor. To date, 772 public servants have been charged, and 554 convicted. More than 1 600 acknowledgments of debt have been signed.

The latest initiative taken by Sexwale reinforces initiatives outlined in his budget speech commitment, made in June this year, where an agreement was signed by his (new) ministry with the SIU, mandating the SIU to investigate fraud, corruption and maladministration in low-income housing contracts.

At this point, Sexwale's national fact-finding mission is incomplete, but he has so far tagged around 3 000 RDP houses that have to be demolished, and rebuilt at a cost of R800m. For a start, how much of that R800m will be recovered from the criminals involved?

Article by: Barry Sergeant - www.moneyweb.co.za