When the ANC's looting machine turns deadly

Andrew Donaldson writes on assassination of Babita Deokaran, one year on


A YEAR has passed since the assassination of Babita Deokaran, gunned down in her car outside her Mondeor home on a Monday morning shortly after dropping her 17-year-old daughter off at school. 

The killing had been weeks in the planning. According to various media reports, the 53-year-old Deokaran had been stalked and tailed by her murderers for more than a month prior to the attack. CCTV cameras in Deokaran’s Winchester Hills neighbourhood had been mysteriously disabled prior to the shooting. 

However, a “suspicious” BMW, seen outside Deokaran’s house on several occasions before her murder, had been reported to local police. 

The vehicle was traced to a former SA National Defence Force member. Together with evidence from a passenger in Deokaran’s car, miraculously not injured in the fusillade of gunfire that raked the vehicle, police were thus able to swiftly arrest a number of suspects.

Six men briefly appeared in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on August 30, 2021, and informed of the charges they face: murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and the illegal possession of firearms and ammunition. 

Prosecutors are confident they have a prima facie case against Phakamani Radebe, 29, Sanele Mbele, 25, Mazibuko Simphiwe, 24, Zitha Radebe, 30, Phakanyiswa Dladla, 25 and Nhlangano Ndlovu, 25, all from KwaZulu-Natal. Denied bail, they remain in custody.

At the time of their court appearance, Captain Ndivhuwo Mulamu, spokeswoman for the Gauteng Hawks, confirmed that charges against a seventh suspect had been provisionally withdrawn. The investigation, she said, was at “a sensitive stage” and the Hawks were hunting for more suspects. Further arrests were imminent, she added.

There have been none to date — and this, I fear, is the grim reality at the heart of Deokaran’s murder: those who hired her killers remain at large and, from what we know of this case, due largely to a thorough News24 investigation, we have a very clear idea of who stands to gain from her death. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Deokaran was that rarity, an honest and diligent civil servant. As acting chief financial officer of the Gauteng Department of Health, she had been a critical witness in the Special Investigative Unit’s attempts to uncover corruption and fraud in the procurement of personal protective equipment for province.

More particularly, she had been alarmed at the sudden dramatic increase in the number of orders processed at Tembisa Hospital. She suspected large-scale “split invoicing”, a practice forensic investigators and auditors consider a strategy to avoid transparent procurement processes.

Her inquiries confirmed her fears: the hospital had become a bottomless source of funds for the tender mafia and other looters. Its bosses, she found, had doled out R850-million in possibly fraudulent payments — and she wanted to put a stop to it.

Here was industrial-scale abuse of treasury regulations that all competitive bids above R500 000 awarded by government entities require the approval of an adjudicating committee. This committee must first consider the recommendations by those tasked with evaluating such bids and then report back to an accounting officer before final approval is granted. 

In a nutshell, then, bids worth less than R500 000 don’t go out to tender and can be approved with little more than a flourish of a pen.

The hospital’s CEO, Dr Ashley Mthunzi, signed off on a truckload of such payments following his appointment in April last year. Bullshit bids that came in at just under the half-a-million mark. In Mthunzi’s first four months on the job, the hospital processed more than 1 200 purchase orders worth some R600-million. In one case, 2 000 hand towels at R230 each. In another, 100 armchairs at just under R5 000 each.

One of the more startling, however, was the payment of R498 000 in June last year for 200 pairs of jeans for girls aged between six and seven. Quite why the hospital, crippled by staff shortages and woefully underfunded, would need to pay for skinny denims for pre-teen girls, at R2 500 a pop, has never been fully explained.

But the contract went to Inez Chaste, one of ten business entities controlled by former footballer Themba Shabalala and his wife, Evelyn. From health department emails and documents obtained from company searches, News24 was able to determine that the firms in the Shabalalas’ stable pocketed some R15-million from the hospital.

The couple’s “medical supply empire” is part of a broader shell of 45 corporations, controlled by just nine individuals, which raked in more than R110-million in contracts from the hospital in a two-month period. 

Inez Chaste, like others in this scam, is a so-called “letter box company”, an operation that exists only on paper. It was founded on the same day as four others, all listing Evelyn Shabalala as sole director. Within a month, they had secured 18 contracts to supply medical equipment to the hospital. 

The Shabalalas are, however, minor players in this murky business. Other individuals, all operating in a similar fashion, have been named. None of their companies have official websites and none are registered with the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority, a mandatory requirement to trade in medical goods.

Deokaran alerted her superiors about all this and so much more. She was under the impression she had their co-operation, that she had their confidence. In one of her last emails before she died, she expressed a concern for her safety: “I am just worried that the guys in Tembisa [hospital] are going to realise we are not releasing their payments and know that we [are] on to something. Our lives could be in danger.”

No protection or support came from her colleagues. Instead, someone alerted the looting machine she wanted shut down. A R2-million contract was reportedly placed on her life, chump change in terms of what could be raked in with her out of the way. And so she was murdered.

On Tuesday evening, activists from organisations such as the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Action for Accountability, and Public Service Accountability Monitor gathered in Mondeor with Deokarans’ friends and family to mark the first anniversary of her death. At a memorial service at the local Baptist church, speakers called for the protection of whistleblowers. 

“We cannot be sitting here a year later,” the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse’s Wayne Duvvenage was quoted as saying, “and nothing has been done about it; where is the real investigation that should have started the moment after Babita’s death? We need the government to investigate suspensions as this is a way to move whistle-blowers out. Since Babitas’s death, we have had several cases where people pulled out because they were afraid to go down the same road as Babita … We can not allow this to happen any more, the lip service is there but not enough is being done.”

This is something of an understatement. There has, in fact, been a great deal of lip service. An indignant flapping of such fury from officialdom that comparisons to mating dirigibles are probably warranted. But there appears to be no resolve or desire to take this matter any further. Simply put, nothing has happened.

At the time of their court appearance, it was reported that one of Deokaran’s alleged killers had made a confession about the assassination. But even if no such confession had been made, the authorities have for months now been in possession of documents and correspondence that identifies those who had benefited from those dubious payments. These individuals remain at large. Ashley Mthunzi has not even been dismissed as the hospital’s CEO.

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Gauteng premier David Makhura confirmed that Deokaran had been killed as a result of her attempts to battle corruption. “We will not be cowed down by criminal gangs who want to loot state resources,” he said at the time. “We are taking steps to protect officials who have become targets of threats, intimidation and wanton murder.”

He then went on to attend to other matters. The months drifted by. It was only last week that Makhura announced that he was finalising the appointment of an independent forensic investigator to look into the matter. He also cautioned that the case was still under investigation and appealed to members of the media to allow law enforcement agencies space to do their work.

“Grudging” would seem too enthusiastic a description of the premier’s statement. It’s worth noting Makhura had been invited to Deokaran’s memorial service. But, unsurprisingly, the coward didn’t pitch.

As courageous as she was, and to take nothing from her, I don’t particularly regard Deokaran as a “whistleblower” but rather an admirable and dutiful employee of the state. As such, she did the right thing. She reported what she considered to be glaring irregularities in procurements in her department. 

This, in the circumstances and in an environment of an ANC-controlled authority, was an act of extraordinary bravery. Babita Deokaran just did her job, a commendable act of heroism that cost her her life.