Date: 31 July 2020 By: Anton van Zyl
A reporter of the Limpopo Mirror/Zoutpansberger has been warned that he will be harmed unless he stops digging into the affairs of a lottery beneficiary.
This happened after the reporter tried to obtain contact information about an organisation that received more than R15 million in lottery funding over the past three years.
The incident happened last Thursday when the reporter received a call from an unknown person, telling him to stop inquiring about the affairs of the Vyeboom Youth Development NPO.
The reporter was assisting the online publication, GroundUp, which has been investigating dodgy grants made by the National Lotteries Commission. The matter was subsequently reported at the Makhado police station and a charge of intimidation is being investigated.
Efforts to call the number used by the threatening caller were unsuccessful and the SIM card is believed to have been bought for the sole purpose of making the threatening call and then discarded.
Who is Vyeboom Youth Development?
The records of the National Lotteries Commission (NLC) reflect that a non-profit organisation, Vyeboom Youth Development (VYD), received R5 million in 2017. The money was supposedly meant to sponsor a music festival in Mpumalanga, called the Troopers Festival. In August last year, the same NPO received R10.1 million in lottery funding, apparently for a sports-related project.
Department of Social Development records show that the NPO is non-compliant, as it has not filed any of the statutory documentation it should have with the NPO Directorate since 2013, after being registered as an NPO in 2011 at an address in Vyeboom, Limpopo.
The person listed as chairperson is Thakhani Theobald Mudau, but when contacted, he said the organisation was no longer active. He told a GroundUp reporter that he had “last worked” at the organisation in 2017 and was unaware that the organisation had received more than R15 million in Lottery grants.
The NLC was notified of the threats to the reporter on Friday and asked to supply contact details of the representative of the NPO that they had dealt with. The NLC was also asked for details of the R10,1 million project it had funded. It was explained to the NLC that the only way the media can defend itself against such threats, is to shine a light on whatever people behind it are trying to hide.
NLC spokesperson Ndivhuho Mafela was quick to condemn such an act of criminality. “Clearly, law enforcement should be allowed to fully investigate and deal with these reported acts of criminality, which should have no place in society,” he said. Despite his lofty words, Mafela refused to divulge any information about the Vyeboom project and advised us to file a Public Access to Information Act (PAIA) request.
Mafela was informed that, as he was well aware, the NLC routinely refuses PAIA applications. Applications filed over the past two years by Limpopo Mirror and by GroundUp were all refused on dubious grounds, as were appeals against the refusals. The argument that both NPOs and the NLC are obliged by law to be transparent and accountable has clearly not been embraced by the NLC.
Why a non-compliant NPO?
The way the NLC uses non-compliant NPOs to run multimillion-rand projects has been highlighted on several occasions by investigative reporters. The Limpopo Mirror first exposed this in February 2018, when we followed the trail of a R27.5 million grant to a Vhembe-registered NPO, Denzhe Primary Care.
What we found has turned into one of the biggest scandals that the NLC has had to deal with. Further digging revealed that Denzhe was both dormant and non-compliant and had been hijacked by a Pretoria-based lawyer. Of the R27.5 million the NPO received – to build a drug rehabilitation centre near Pretoria – more than R20 million cannot be accounted for.
Non-profit organisations are registered with the NPO Directorate, which falls under the Department of Social Development (DSD). They are issued with an NPO number and have a statutory obligation to submit annual reports to the DSD. In the case of Denzhe, as with Vyeboom, this has not happened.
Questioned on the practice of giving millions of rands in funding to non-compliant NPOs, the NLC’s chief operating officer, Phillemon Letwaba, said that submitting annual returns to the DSD was not a prerequisite for receiving a grant. “We do not check whether the NPO has filed returns with Social Development, because it is not one of the requirements in terms of the (Lotteries) Act,” he said in 2018.
What makes the grant to the Vyeboom NPO even more suspicious, is that the initial R5 million grant for the music festival was awarded in terms of the NLCs pro-active funding initiative.
In the past, all organisations had to apply for funding with the NLC. These applications would then be vetted and, if viable, approved. In 2016, the legislation changed, making it possible for the NLC’s Board, the NLC itself or the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition to identify projects and then appoint an organisation to implement these ideas. It is believed that the latest R10.1 million grant was also awarded as proactive funding.
This, in effect, means that the NLC searched for and identified a non-compliant NPO, Vyeboom Youth Development, as a suitable candidate to run multimillion-rand projects.
A festival for Troopers?
GroundUp’s reporters spent a lot of time trying to trace the people behind Vyeboom NPO. The person listed as original chairperson, Thakhani Mudau, denied knowledge of the latest grant, but was less forthcoming with information about the music festival. He promised to respond to questions sent via email and WhatsApp but failed to do so. He also did not answer his phone after we tried to contact him.
A Facebook page was set up in September last year for Vyeboom Youth Development, shortly after the NPO had received the money. The page is being managed by Tshidumo Fhumulani Nicolus. When he was contacted by GroundUp, however, he said he had no knowledge of the Troopers Festival.
The NPO was established to cater to the needs of the local Vyeboom community, he said. Its activities include a vegetable farm and they provide meals for orphans. Nicolus said he had previously applied for lottery funding but with no success.
The Troopers Festival features twice in NLC documentation; during a special NLC Board meeting on 2 September 2016, a decision was taken to utilize R45 million in surplus funds in the Arts and Culture sector. The funds were distributed to “respective qualifying flagship projects”, up to a maximum of R5 million each.
In 2016, the money for the festival was channelled through an NPO called Migingiriko Projects. This NPO was registered in 2015, but it has not fulfilled its statutory reporting obligations with the DSD since 2017. GroundUp’s investigation found that this NPO does not have a Facebook page or any other online presence. The contact numbers on the original documentation were no longer working and a person who responded to an email from GroundUp refused to comment.
In 2017, another R5 million earmarked for a “Troopers Festival” was paid, but this time to Vyeboom Youth Development.
Enquiries among artists in the Vhembe area provided no clarity about any Troopers Festival. None of the local artists could recall having heard of such a festival. According to the NLC documentation, the festival was staged in Mpumalanga, but Internet searches reveal no information. The event is not listed on any websites for festivals in Mpumalanga.
The latest threat to a reporter investigating lottery grants was condemned by the SA National Editors Forum (SANEF). In a press release issued last Friday, SANEF says that it is inexcusable for individuals to threaten journalists. “We trust that the police will give this matter the urgency it deserves and identify the culprits,” the statement reads.
SANEF also expresses concern about the reluctance of the NLC to release information about NPOs receiving funding. In 2019, following a series of articles exposing questionable grants and possible large-scale corruption, the NLC stopped publishing details of organisations being funded. Even when questions were asked in parliament, the NLC refused to disclose which organisations benefit from its funding.
After mounting pressure from a various sectors, the NLC budged this week and released details of the past two years’ beneficiaries on Monday. The details made available included an incomplete list of organisations that benefited from its R150 Covid-19 relief initiative.
Anton van Zyl has been with the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror since 1990. He graduated from the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and obtained a BA Communications degree. He is a founder member of the Association of Independent Publishers.