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Are Mpumalanga politicians using Covid-19 suffering to gain support?

As South African authorities battle to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, Mpumalanga politicians are waging their own battle to outshine each other through the distribution of humanitarian aid to the needy.

A war of words on social media started when Economic Freedom Fighters alleged that Mpumalanga legislature portfolio committee chairperson on social development, Jeanet Thabethe, was distributing food parcels at Tekwane South township along party political lines.

This was after Thabethe purportedly sent out an SMS directing her “comrades” to register people who are in distress as a result of the national lockdown which was declared to curb the spread of the Coronavirus.

The SMS stated that they should exclude recipients of the government’s old age pension and those she refers to as “sick”. It is believed that the sick are those who receive the disability grant. But it also directs that they register “our” people.

“Make list of needly (sic) people ningafaki bogogo labahola i pension please akabhalise nge muntfu, nakahola yebantfwana akunankinga. Kodwa leyokugula neyalabadzala cha. Ubhala ligama, sibongo, cell no kanye ne stand number. Please nibhalise kakhulu bantfu bethu ngoba labanye bababhalisile,” reads the SMS.

Loosely translated: “Do not register grannies who receive old age pension. There’s no problem with those who receive the child support grant, but those who receive the disability grant and old age pension – No. You register that name, surname, cell number and stand number. Please register mostly our people because others have already registered.”

“Leave me alone”

As a member of the legislature, Thabethe’s role is to exercise oversight over the department of social development, but the SMS suggests that Thabethe had arrogated herself the department’s role without the knowledge of the MEC.

Thabethe declined to comment on the allegations against her.

“Ingidinile lento hlukanani nami angazani nama food parcels.”

Loosely translated, she said, “I’m exhausted because of this. Please leave me alone. I know nothing about food parcels,” she said before hanging up.

The source of the food parcels is unknown, however, Mpumalanga EFF leader, Collen Sedibe, alleged that officials from the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) who are linked to an ANC faction, delivered the food parcels to Thabethe’s home.

Sedibe has since opened criminal cases at the Nelspruit police station against both Thabethe and a senior SASSA official.

“The EFF in Mpumalanga will be laying a corruption and criminal case against the ANC MPL and REC member Jeanette Thabethe for illegally receiving food parcel in her house. The EFF will also open the same case against SASSA regional director Mrs Kedibone Mathebula who authorised the delivery of the food parcels to Hon J Thabethe’s house,” read Sedibe’s statement.

SASSA spokesperson, Senzeni Ngubeni, declined to comment on the allegations.
“As SASSA we have done our own investigation on the allegations and found no wrongdoing on our part, however, since he (Sedibe) has already opened a case, we cannot comment on the merits of the matter, but will co-operate with the police investigation,” said Ngubeni on Friday.

Social development spokesperson, Comfort Ngobe, also denied that his department was the source of the food parcels that Thabethe had been distributing. He said that his department had not started distributing any food parcels as of Friday.

A government source who spoke on condition of anonymity claimed that the province’s department of Agriculture Rural Development and Land Administration (DARDLA) “donated” food parcels to Thabethe for distribution following a directive from the province’s director-general, Sindisiwe Xulu.

Premier’s office spokesperson, Sibongile Mkani-Mpolweni, however, denied the allegations.

“There is no truth to the statement, the DG did not issue any instruction for food parcels or anything to be distributed at the member’s home. This is news to the DG and it’s the first time hearing of such an instruction from your media inquiry,” she said.

Sanitising the premier’s image

While the distribution of humanitarian aid during the national lockdown appears to be a battle between the EFF and the ANC, events in the province show that ANC factions also seem bent on using human suffering and humanitarian aid to gain political mileage.

The ruling party was supposed to hold its long overdue provincial conference earlier this year and the two main factions, dubbed “Ngci” and “Focus” will be coming head-to-head.

Ngci faction are those who openly associate with deputy president, David Mabuza, while Focus pay their allegiance to ANC secretary-general, Ace Magashule.

The outbreak of the Coronavirus has given the Ngci faction, which has access to state resources, the necessary ammunition to popularise themselves in the communities while the Focus faction, which controls ANC structures, are confined to their homes due to the lockdown.

Refilwe Mtshweni-Tsipane, did not want to be outdone either. Last week she was distributing sanitisers with a huge portrait of her face, and not a single symbol to show that the items were procured using public funds. Her office failed to respond to media enquiries regarding this matter.

Mpumalanga provincial legislature, deputy speaker, Vusi Mkhatshwa, who is also a leader of the Ngci faction also admitted that he distributed food parcels to 300 families at Barberton.

The Focus faction, on the other hand, merely has political control and most of their leaders are confined to their homes due to the lockdown and are prohibited from holding gatherings.

On Monday, president Cyril Ramaphosa described the conduct of those who are hoarding food parcels meant for the needy as “disgusting”.

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