Funny business at the National State Lottery

………article 25 July 2020……..

NLC Commission finally to be investigated…

For both the years 2018/9 and 2019/2020, Parliament has been unable to obtain from the National Lotteries Commission (NLC) any official list of beneficiaries and any funding details by the State Lotteries Fund run by the secretive Prof. Alfred Nevhutanda, also chairman of its Fund.

No amount of parliamentary requests, annual reporting requirements, or encounters with investigative journalists have convinced the professor to break the veil of secrecy on projects run by the Fund.

With the doors closed to any form of questioning on beneficiaries, even to the department of trade and industry reporting to the minister concerned, it also appears just as important to Prof. Nevhutanda not to part with any information on how decisions are made on funding and what criteria is used. Again he remains silent when  asked by MPs.

Playing mum

After three years of harassing the NLC when it presents its annual returns to Parliament and briefs the Trade and Industry Portfolio Committee as required by the public management financial legislation, opposition MPs over this period have so far only managed to get the Fund to categorize outgoing funds into the types of grant it makes. In accounting terms this means absolutely nothing, of course.

In the last few weeks, however, matters at last might be coming to a head.  If things are as Parliament suspects, there is to yet to be another mighty crash for the reputation of public sector governance.

Fund income

The sale of lottery tickets to the public and disbursement of prizes are separated by law, such operations being run by a service provider, the names and addresses of winners being protected.   It is from the sale of these tickets that the Fund gets its percentage of revenue.

Every year, with the publishing of the NLC annual report, the professor has presented a picture of respectability with a special chapter devoted to the activities of the SL Fund.  2019/2020 was no different until it came to question time during the parliamentary briefing.

Extracting teeth

Professor Nevhutanda, (who was bestowed with his doctorate in Azerbaijan it appears) was asked this year by the same MPs the same questions.  Once again he quoted the necessity for privacy on the grounds of the Fund’s need for neutrality and to maintain the appearance of impartiality.    The same phrases were trotted out that the naming of projects would expose the Fund’s beneficiaries to all kinds of risks and accusations that the Fund favouring one NGO or beneficiary over another.

The professor also told parliamentarians this year that his enemies could include extortionists and spamming operators, even refusing to supply such a list to MPs “for their eyes only” which would have been subject to parliamentary rules. In the past, ANC MPs had nodded at these wise comments.

Enough is enough

For the last three years  at the same time but coming to a head this year, has been a parallel series of stories appearing in the Daily Maverick into the funding of the of SLF projects staring in the Northern Cape, more appearing in Free State, then Gauteng. Pressure this year was seriously put upon the Professor Nevhutanda to answer questions on the Funds’ activities.

In committee beforehand, ANC MPs have stood mute and never commenting, the EFF subsequently joining with the DA this year demanding answers.  It was a stormy meeting.

Turnabout

ANC MPs were finally convinced this year by Mat Cuthbert (DA) in a recent August meeting that it was in everybody’s interests that there be a court challenge on whether Parliament was constitutionally supreme in calling for oversight of all State Lotteries funding, unanimous vote being recorded to request such from experts.

Legal opinion has now come down in time for the most recent meeting with the NLC advising that, on this matter, the Constitution clearly indicates that Parliament can trump the State Lottery Fund Act in equal fashion to any other government institution and that all financial aspects of the Fund should be subject to disclosure and parliamentary oversight thus obtained.

The truth will out

Thanks therefore to the persistence of two DA MPs, Mat Cuthbert and Dave Macpherson, yet another castle of cards involving senior government officials is about collapse.

Looking back things had started to get hotfor Professor Nevhutanda when he was reported as suing a group of investigative journalists, known as Ground-up, for R600,000 in respect of defamation damages. This was an unusual incident in the life of the NLC, it seemed.

Rumblings

It also appeared at the time that the argument was all about reports run by the Daily Maverick, sourced by Ground-up, that in Kuruman, Northern Cape, there were three particular State Lottery projects, an old-age home, a drug rehabilitation centre and a library/museum, being built and all meant to celebrate the life and work of a sangoma, Credo Mutwa.

According to the Daily Maverick article some R60m was granted as far back as 2016/7 but by 2019 two were still “under construction”, having received funding two years before.  The third, a museum, had not single exhibit therein and the library’s shelves were empty”, said Ground-up, who had been to Kuruman to see for themselves.

Photographs of fences, a few walls and piles of bricks were included in various articles and in subsequent articles the construction companies had suspicious links to NLC officials, the Daily Maverick said.

Out of sight

The NLC has distributed on average around R1.6bn per annum in recent years before Covid 19 arrived.  For a good deal of the earlier years, Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies, has presided over the affairs of the NLC very much at arm’s length since his department has been at pains, it seems, not to get too involved in lottery matters to any great depth.

Similarly, the Chair of the Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry for years, Joanna Fubbs, just asked for assurances every year that all funds went to good causes and were distributed particularly amongst the poor. She received such assurances.

Writing the rules

Prof Nevhutanda, always aware that the Lotteries Act demanded no political interference in its affairs, would talk little on what motivated decisions on his  grants. This was a tightly held process within the NLC, he said, and the tenets and principles behind the formulae for consideration of funding had been designed by no less than the professor himself, the annual report of the State Lotteries Commission stated., with the Professor as author.

Consequently, DTI presentations to Parliament on this portion of their responsibilities made to the Portfolio Committee of Trade and Industry have been less than sketchy, particularly on report backs on whether DTI inspectors of NLC staff ever visited project sites.

Grants were declared as annual totals simplistically broken down into projects falling into four categories, the arts, charities, sports and miscellaneous. No more.

 Build up

Meanwhile, Minister Patel has been playing difficult and not really helping obviously not wishing to get too involved in problems of an entity run for so many years by a predecessor.

 

The Auditor General over the years seems to have accepted that no follow through was necessary but last year, with a tightening up of the rules, has now flagged some of the  issues as “irregular”.

D-Day

The letter now sent from Parliament to Prof. Nevhutanda from Parliament demands that the NLC should submit within seven days of receipt of the letter the names of beneficiaries who had received funds from the NLC in respect of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the amount received as  beneficiaries referred to in the 2018/9 annual report and which were required by the Lotteries Act.

It also calls for details of all the categories under which the grants were made, names of beneficiaries and the amounts involved.  A similar call is made for 2019/20 figures in the 2019/2020 annual report as required in law.

 In the past

To sit through a meeting with the National Lotteries Commission (NLC) has been an insult to the average person’s intelligence for some years now, but the last virtual meeting was short and quick.  Chair Duma Nkosi read from the Courts findings and all quickly sided with Opposition MPs that Parliament had to exercise its authority immediately.

In the most recent meeting, Cuthbert said he was “horrified” to see how many ANCs had suddenly decided to vote agreeing on the matter after three years of disagreement, only siding with the DA when the Courts opinion posed a threat to the blind-eye approach of the past.

Nevertheless, it was a total majority decision made that NLC be hauled before Parliament and explanations given.

Past bad apples

Prof Nevhutanda is not short of publicity either.  Two years ago, he stood accused when a company with the improbable name of the Makhaya Arts & Cultural Development Co, and which employed Prof Nevhutanda’s daughter, controversially received a massive R64m from the National State Lotteries Fund, a story covered by Mail & Guardian.

The charmed life of Prof Nevhutanda seems set to end very shortly. One hopes that endless SIU reports, NPA paralysis and blunted Hawks investigations are not to follow, as the State Lotteries Fund Pandora’s box opens up.  It would seem a question of who gets there first; the SIU or Parliament.

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