Mystery Limpopo outfit gets multi-million rand Lottery contract for old age home in Mpumalanga

Facility, which is unfinished after two years, is in Lottery COO’s village

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Photo of unfinished old age home
Over two years ago, the National Lotteries Commission awarded at least R20 million to construct this still unfinished old age home. All photos: Raymond Joseph

A non-profit organisation in Limpopo that had failed to meet its statutory reporting obligations for at least five years was awarded at least R20 million by the National Lotteries Commission to build an old age home - in Mpumalanga.

And more than two years after the NLC approved the grant for the home, the project is still not finished.

It has been plagued by long delays, complaints of slow payments to small local contractors and persistent shortages of building material. The old age home in Marapyane is one of six funded by the NLC for at least R20 million each in rural areas around South Africa.

Marapyane is also the home village of NLC chief operating officer Phillemon Letwaba. Many of his family still live there and Letwaba has built himself a luxury home in the village, just a kilometre away from the unfinished old age home.

The NPO that received the grant for the Marapyane home is Matieni Community Centre which, according to Department of Social Development records, is based in a remote village in the Thohoyandou district in Limpopo.

Matieni was first registered with the department as an NPO in 2002. An online directory gives its address as “Itsani Village, Matieni area, next to old dairy 15 km west of Thohoyandou”.

But how Matieni was chosen for the project is unclear. Initial funding of R20 million for the construction of the six homes was approved by the NLC board on 16 October 2017.

Matieni has failed to submit financial reports and other documents it is legally required to file in terms of the NPO Act for at least seven years, according to Social Development department records. In response to an emailed query, the department says that annual reporting going back to 2012 is “outstanding”. It lists the 2019 report as “expected”.

Organisations that receive as much Lottery funding as Matieni was awarded must provide the NLC with two years of audited financial statements. The NLC has said in the past that the law does not require it to check on whether or not an NPO has filed returns with the Department of Social Development. It appears that often the NLC merely checks that an NPO is registered with the department.

In its constitution lodged with Social Development, Matieni says one of its main objectives is “to improve the quality of life in Itsani Village by improving conditions through better access to social services”. All its other stated objectives — including job creation and developing community projects — are focused on Itsani Village.

Why the NLC would give funds for an old-age home in Mpumalanga to a non-compliant Limpopo-based NPO with no record of involvement in large construction projects is a mystery.

NLC spokesman Ndivuhuho Mafela failed to respond to GroundUp’s question about how Matieni was chosen for the Marapyane project.

Despite suggesting that GroundUp speak to the “beneficiary of the grant,” the NLC’s Mafela refused to supply contact details for Matieni.

“Just for clarity, the NLC has on numerous occasions indicated that we cannot give the details of the beneficiary without their consent,” he said in an email.

We attempted to contact members of the Matieni board using phone numbers it supplied when it was first registered with Social Development. One of the numbers was answered — by a woman who said she was not involved with Matieni and was not aware of the organisation.

Contacted by phone, Daphne Mathobo, who is listed with the DSD as “co-ordinator” of Matienie, asked for questions about the Marapyane old age home to be sent to her via WhatsApp. This was done, but she failed to respond.

Among the questions she was asked was whether Matieni was still active and if it had submitted a proposal for the old age home, or whether it was “chosen” by the NLC for the project. She also failed to say why Marapyane was chosen as the site for the home, how much money Matieni had received and how much of the grant is still left.

Slow progress

Construction of the Marapyane home has progressed at a snail’s pace and some small building contractors say they have battled to be paid relatively small amounts.

The old age home consists of two identical buildings that will accommodate 35 men and 35 women once complete. But there was no building or any other activity happening on the locked up and fenced-in property when GroundUp visited Marapyane in November.

Main street in Marapyane, Mpumalanga.

Marapyane is also the home village of NLC Chief Operating Officer Phillemon Letwaba — known as “Phosphos” to his friends — who faces several allegations of conflict of interest. Many of his close family live in the village, which was once part of Bophuthatswana, one of the apartheid era “Bantustans”.

Marapyane is a typical small village where cattle and donkeys sometimes wander in the streets. It is one of three closely linked, adjacent villages — all with close family and traditional links to Marapyane and each other — that the old age home will serve once it is completed. The other two villages are Greenside and Seabe.

In recent years Marapyane has enjoyed some growth and now boasts a small, modern shopping centre, a Kentucky drive-through, a small Shoprite, and a Caltex garage. But most businesses are small and housed in modest single floor premises lining the main road.

Living in the lap of luxury

Just over a kilometre away from the unfinished old age home Letwaba has built himself a luxury mansion that he uses as a weekend and holiday retreat. He works in Pretoria where he lives in one of the city’s upmarket, gated estates. Painted in a trendy, subtle lilac, his Marapyane home would not be out of place in an upmarket suburb anywhere in South Africa. It is by far the biggest home in an area where most people live in small, modest brick or breeze block homes.

Boasting a main house with five garages and two three-bedroom houses for guests, it is set on a very large property with extensive security and surrounded by high walls, Google satellite photos show extensive, well-kept gardens and a swimming pool and tennis court at the rear of the property.

NLC COO Phillemon Letwaba’s house in Marapanye.

In response to a question about why Marapanye was chosen as the site of the old age home and whether Letwaba’s links to the village might be perceived as a conflict of interest, Mafela responded: “The selection of implementing agents and areas of implementation are directed by research conducted in terms of the Lotteries Act. It is no different in this case. The NLC had multi stakeholder consultations which included traditional leaders, Dr JS Moroka Municipality and various others. The Municipality through the office of the mayor recommended Marapyane as the central location within the Dr JS Moroka Municipality. This was due to the municipality’s commitment to support the project’s sustainability beyond construction.”

This was contradicted by Marapyane councillor John Ngodi, who claimed the NLC had not consulted the municipality or the area’s traditional leadership before embarking on the project.

“The municipality intervened after a few months (after construction had begun) when people complained about not being paid,” he said.

Complaints roll in over slow progress and payments

During a visit to Marapyane in October by the Deputy Minister in the Department of Social Development Hendrietta Ipeleng Bogopane-Zulu, small contractors and the local business chamber complained to her about slow payments and other issues relating to the old age home.

People who met Bogopane-Zulu said she had undertaken to intervene on their behalf to resolve payment and other problems raised with her during her visit.

Councillor Ngodi said the municipality was not involved in the project though it had “assisted with sourcing labour” and getting local businesses involved. “After the (deputy) minister’s visit, we instructed our own municipal engineers to compile a technical report to tell us what is needed to finish the old age home. Once that report is ready we will compile a formal report of what they found for the minister. As a municipality, we want accountability.”

“We have also spoken to the NLC and they have promised to do whatever has to be done to finish the project,” he added.

ANC Member of Parliament Grace Tseke, who comes from Marapyane, confirmed that she had also intervened on behalf of some of the contractors “to help them get paid”.

Kathi Makole, the chairman of the local business forum, said the forum had intervened on behalf of their members with the main contractors, “Drogmar”, over outstanding payments and about certificates of appointment not being issued to contractors.

“But, unfortunately, ‘Drogmar’ are not easily available when we want to speak to them. I know my members are very unhappy and we are trying our best to sort this out for them,” he said.

GroundUp could not find any listing for Drogmar - or any variations on its name - on the website of the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, which registers both private and non-profit companies in South Africa. An internet and online phone directory search also did not turn up any construction companies in South Africa called Drogmar or anything similar. In response to a request for contact details for Drogmar, Mafela said: “… we have on numerous occasions stated that the NLC have got no role in the appointment of contractors so we are unable to assist you in this regard.”

One small contractor, who asked not to be identified as he feared victimisation, said: “It takes up to two months to get paid. I have to pay my workers upfront but sometimes I have not had the cash because of the payment problems. They also kept changing suppliers, which also created problems,” he said. “They told us that they do not have enough building material. The job kept stopping … we would work for a month and then stop for two months - and then we battled to be paid. This job was meant to take, at most, a year. We saw this as a great opportunity for small businesses to develop and grow, but it has been a nightmare.”

He is one of several people who say they have been told that the payment problem was because “the Lottery is slow to pay”.

Mafela said the NLC’s grant agreement with an NPO outlined the obligations of both parties. “Payment to an NPO is based on the terms and conditions outlined in the agreement. This is also the case with NPOs that were funded for the construction of these old age homes.”

He said that the estimated date of handover of the project was February 2020.

Bogopane-Zulu failed to respond to questions submitted via the department’s head of communications, Nomfundo Lentsoane, who said the deputy minister was “very busy”.

The Department of Social Development also failed to respond to questions about whether it had been consulted on the NLC’s decision to fund the Marapyane old age home and the six other homes, and on where they were situated. The department also failed to respond to questions about its role in the licensing and staffing of these homes.

Two years on and still an incomplete building site

Site manager Ephraim Maila took GroundUp on a tour of the site.

There are piles of bricks, sand and rubble and other building materials scattered around the site. Both buildings - one for men and the other for women are still under construction. Both recently had aluminum windows fitted, he said. But doors, ceiling and fixtures and fittings are yet to be installed.

Inside the buildings, it is clear that there is still much work to be done if the NLC’s February deadline for completion is to be met, especially with the building industry due to shut down for its annual break between 13 December and 13 January.

There are also problems that must first be rectified. These include some leaking roofs and problems with plumbing and electrical wiring conduits that have been incorrectly installed. Throughout the buildings, there is evidence of remedial work. Bizarrely, some sewerage pipe outlets on which toilets will be fitted have been placed in the centre of floors in some stalls. They are now having to be dug up and moved to the correct position closer to the rear wall. Incorrectly positioned, concrete covered wiring conduits are also being dug up and repositioned.

The Marapyane project is the second Lottery-funded old age home that has been plagued by problems.

In August GroundUp reported how the Lethabong Old Age Home in Kuruman was still under construction two years after the NLC approved a grant of R20 million late in October 2017. We also revealed how at least two of the companies involved in the construction were linked to the NLC’s Letwaba.

Letwaba is suing GroundUp for R600,000 for alleged defamation.

Interior of the old age home.

TOPICS:  National Lotteries Commission

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