Gauteng government buys newspaper space to praise MEC

MEC Mbali Hlophe won’t say how much the province spent on the advertorials

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Mbali Hlophe was appointed Gauteng MEC of the social development and agriculture departments in October 2022. Photo from the Gauteng government (fair use).

  • The Gauteng Department of Social Development and Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development paid for articles in the media praising MEC Mbali Hlophe’s performance since taking office in 2022.
  • Hlophe and the social development department have faced bad press in recent months relating to catastrophic failures to pay subsidies to non-profit organisations.
  • The MEC’s spokesperson would not say how much the advertorials cost.

The Gauteng Department of Social Development and the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform, both of which Mbali Hlophe is the MEC for, have funded dozens of paid-for articles (advertorials) in the media promoting her personal leadership.

This comes after catastrophic failures by the social development department to pay non-profit organisations on time.

Over the past few weeks, articles have appeared in half a dozen local newspapers, the Financial Mail and the Mail & Guardian.

One of the three advertorials in the Mail & Guardian also includes Hlophe doing a 40-minute podcast interview. (The video only had about 20 views at our time of publication.)

The spokesperson for the MEC ignored our repeated questions about how much all these advertorials cost.

According to a 2023 rate card for advertising in the Mail & Guardian, three sponsored articles can be placed for R60,000. According to 2024 rate card for the Financial Mail, digital sponsored articles cost upwards of R45,000 each.

Read the full responses from the MEC spokesperson here

The advertorials focus on promoting Hlophe, rather than on the work of the departments.

“GDARDE and GDSD Track its Highest Performance Rating Under the Leadership of MEC Mbali Hlophe”, reads the headline of an advertorial placed in at least five of Caxton’s free community newspapers.

Hlophe was appointed to the position of MEC for both departments in October 2022.

The advertorials claim that under her leadership the departments have achieved their best performance since 2019. “These improvements were driven by effective leadership and strategic initiatives implemented during the sixth administrative period under the leadership of MEC Mbali Hlophe,” the Caxton advertorial reads.

Spokespersons for both departments referred us to the MEC’s spokesperson, Themba Gadebe.

Gadebe declined to disclose to GroundUp how much the provincial government paid for the advertorials, but said the money came from the department’s “allocation towards communications”, which can be up to 5% of a department’s total budget. He said that the department had been underspending on communications.

“It’s unclear why GroundUp seeks to make our departments’ efforts of communicating on a variety of work done as sinister – particularly when Premier Panyaza and President Ramaphosa have emphasised on the importance of government communicating with society in order to close the social gap between government and its people,” said Gadebe.

The department’s Annual Performance Plan for 2023/24, which sets out the performance targets at the start of every year, is not publicly available and Gadebe would not provide it, saying the figures had not yet been tabled before the provincial legislature.

This means there is no means for GroundUp to verify the performance claims in the advertorials.

A graphic included in the advertorials claims significant improvement in performance for both of Mbali Hlophe’s departments.

The most recent publicly available performance report for the Department of Social Development is for the second quarter of 2023/24. It indicates that only 62% of targets for the first two quarters of the year were met.

The advertorials claim that the social development and the agriculture department have each now achieved 82% of their annual performance plan targets.

“There are four quarters in a financial year and much progress has been achieved to date,” Gadebe said.

The advertorials follow reports of mismanagement at the Gauteng Department of Social Development over the past year in funding non-profit organisations that provide social services to vulnerable people in the province. The failure of the department’s new funding adjudication process has been financially devastating and some organisations have had to close their doors.

The provincial treasury is also investigating several multi-million-rand budget deviations.

Asked whether Hlophe took any responsibility for this mismanagement, Hlophe’s spokesperson told GroundUp that the MEC only provides oversight and was not involved in administrative issues.

Claims of cracking down on corruption

The advertorials emphasise Hlophe’s attempts to crack down on corruption and maladministration in the Department of Social Development. They say there were several forensic audits commissioned by the department that were not acted on before Hlophe took the wheel.

Gadebe said there a total of 11 investigations, the Caxton advertorial says there were 8, and in a Mail & Guardian advertorial the number is given as 7. 14 officials have since been suspended, the advertorials say.

Gadebe told GroundUp that “the findings from investigations range from misconduct by officials in the funding and management of NPOs, dereliction of duties by officials, gross negligence and failure to perform duties, officials circumventing SCM [supply chain management] processes through funding of NPOs, money laundering, racketeering, fraud and corruption which has also been referred to the HAWKS for further criminal investigations which are still ongoing.”

Asked for more details, he said the matter was “sub judice”.

Gadebe said Hlophe had made good progress on rooting out “the years of rot that has been left unattended, and allowed to fester to an extent of crippling the department’s ability to function and serve the public as it should”.

“It’s only fair to acknowledge that 18 months is too little time to turn the tide on maladministration that stems as far back as 2016,” Gadebe said.

However, Hlophe was the MEC for both departments when Matilda Gasela, who faced allegations of financial mismanagement as head of the agriculture department, was nevertheless appointed head of social development by Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi in March 2023.

Gasela remained head of both departments until the end of April 2024 when her contract was not renewed and she left under a cloud of corruption allegations.

Gadebe referred GroundUp’s questions about Gasela’s appointment to Lesufi’s spokesperson, Sizwe Pamla. Pamla did not respond to our questions.

Update on 2024-06-27 13:27

This article was updated to reflect the inconsistencies in the advertorials' mentions of the number of investigations launched by the department.

TOPICS:  Social Development mismanagement

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Dear Editor

The spokesperson refers to the rot in the department. What was done over the years, besides nothing, to address this rot? And then they spend money on useless advertorials, whilst putting NPOs out of business?

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