By Greg Nicolson
First published in Daily Maverick

Seven people were arrested for fraud by the Hawks on Tuesday at the Sandton and Martindale licensing departments. In a statement, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba said investigations revealed there are 106 allegedly corrupt licensing centre officials who will be arrested and “face the full might of the law”. Eight suspects face immediate suspensions and disciplinary hearings.

The investigation, led by Johannesburg internal investigations unit head Shadrack Sibiya, found that between January 2008 and February 2016 there were an alleged 972 fraudulent transactions at Johannesburg’s licensing centres, totalling R14.7-million. The worst affected centres were Langlaagte, Sandton and Martindale. The mayor said criminal syndicates have been working with licensing officials to conduct illegal system transactions and obtain drivers’ licences, disc licences and vehicle registrations. The officials are alleged to have taken cash from the syndicates that were meant for city coffers.

Johannesburg Public Safety MMC Michael Sun said that as arrests occur in the coming days at licensing centres, services will be affected and residents should be patient.

“We will do our best to ensure that we minimise the effect on service delivery over this period and we will work tirelessly to ensure a more efficient licensing services going forward,” said Sun.

During last year’s local government elections, Mashaba said a DA administration would prioritise the fight against corruption in order to build an effective government and deliver services to the poor. Marking his first 100 days in office, Mashaba said that since taking office in August he had been inundated with daily reports of corruption, fraud and nepotism.

“Corruption is not a strong enough term for what was taking place in the city. It was outright, shameless looting,” said the mayor.

Mashaba praised the work of Sibiya, who after conducting his investigation worked closely with the Hawks. Sibiya headed the top crime fighting unit in Gauteng until he was pushed out over allegations regarding the illegal rendition of Zimbabweans in 2010. The matter was used to isolate a number of top police officers during an ongoing battle for power that links politics, law enforcement agencies and corruption. Sibiya’s suspension from the Hawks was overturned in court while the legal fallout of the rendition and the political implications continues. Mashaba appointed him to lead Johannesburg’s anti-graft unit in November.

“The days when corrupt officials would get a gentle slap on the wrist or be shifted to a different department are over. Those found guilty of corruption will be prosecuted and stolen money reclaimed,” said Mashaba.

Over the phone, he added, “This is the tip of the iceberg. There are bigger cases where we already have forensic evidence.”

Mashaba said Sibiya was brought in to provide the necessary investigative capacity and, given the flood of cases, KPMG was being used to help compile forensic audits.

“I’m confident we will start to see arrests on a daily basis,” promised the mayor. He said the ANC administration knew of cases of corruption but failed to act. Mashaba, less than five months into his job, said there had been some resistance within the city administration to the corruption investigations but he was not out to purge anyone who was appointed under the ANC.

Not giving credit

ANC Johannesburg spokesperson Jolidee Matongo said Mashaba and the DA were claiming victories from work that started with the ANC government.

“The investigations were done long ago,” he said. “It’s work we have started.” Matongo said the ANC compiled “quite a lot of forensic investigations” and had been recognised by the Auditor-General for its anti-corruption work in Johannesburg. The DA administration’s announced successes are disingenuous, Matongo said. He noted the title deeds recently delivered by Mashaba and said he was capitalising on the ANC’s efforts. “It’s how they operate. They’re trying to portray themselves as this effective and efficient machine, which they’re not.” The DA was grandstanding, he said, and only after Mashaba passes his own budget will there be an indication of where they are taking the city.

“What am I supposed to do, let people steal from the poor?” said Mashaba to accusations of grandstanding. He said he was happy to “grandstand” if it meant city money would be recovered and used on services for the poor.

Corruption fighting from the top

Corruption Watch executive director David Lewis on Tuesday said his organisation receives 120 reports of corruption each week and a significant number point to licensing centres. Such corruption is “particularly insidious” because obtaining a licence or registration is often young people’s introduction to the public service and it puts bad drivers on the road.

“So we welcome Mashaba’s stated commitment. It squares with the strong commitment and action taken in the province under the impressive leadership of Premier Makhura,” said Lewis. “We would hope that the leadership of the province and the metros, several of which are in the hands of DA-led coalitions, would see their way clear to joining hands in fighting corruption on a non-partisan basis.”

Municipal IQ managing director Kevin Allan noted the DA campaigned on a platform of clamping down on corruption and cleaning up governments to provide better services.

“Our attitude at the moment is, let’s see what clear evidence there is and if there is clear evidence let’s support it, and there should be criminal action.”

He added that only time would tell, however, whether Mashaba’s administration, like new DA-led municipalities across the country, would be able to make a significant impact against corruption.