VREDE, South Africa/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Struggling farmer Meshack Ncongwane was a life-long supporter of South Africa’s governing African National Congress, but says the party won’t get his vote in parliamentary and provincial elections next week.
Local ANC officials offered him what he thought would be a lucrative stake in a dairy farm in 2013. He was one of 80 people who were to be given an equal portion of a 50 percent share in the venture funded by the local government.
But he says the project set up to help landless black farmers fell victim to fraud, and the venture is being scrutinised by prosecutors.
Losing the support of people like Ncongwane is a worry for the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa, as they struggle to reverse a slide in support for the party caused in part by perceptions that more needs to be done to stamp out corruption.
Prosecutors say 220 million rand ($15 million) in public money invested in the dairy project was siphoned off, some of it into accounts linked to the Guptas, a wealthy and influential family.
The Guptas deny any wrongdoing, their lawyer Rudi Krause said.
Prosecutors say they are building a case after dropping charges last year against three provincial officials and five business associates due to insufficient evidence. All those accused have denied wrongdoing.
The project is among the best-known cases where accusations have been made of what South Africans call the “capture” of the state by rich and powerful interests.
Ncongwane, now 62, said he was promised a free stake in the project and access to farm equipment and land to graze cattle but ended up with nothing. The farm is fenced off, and he feeds his cows on dry, over-grazed grassland flanked by a graveyard.
“It is painful because you can see the state of corruption (in the country),” Ncongwane told Reuters at a neighbour’s home in the town of Vrede, in South Africa’s central Free State province.
Fed up with “empty promises”, Ncongwane said of Ramaphosa and the ANC: “They can forget about me.”
Prosecutors did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The president’s office declined to comment and referred Reuters to the ANC when asked about the project.
ANC spokesman Dakota Legoete said he could not speak about individual cases, but the party was determined to fight corruption and had taken steps including setting up four separate judicial enquiries to look into alleged graft.
Anger over allegations of widespread corruption during Jacob Zuma’s presidency, from 2009 until 2018, propelled his successor Ramaphosa into office in February last year.
But since he took over, no senior government official has been convicted for looting the public purse, and frustration over the issue is mounting before May 8 elections.
Opposition leaders have zeroed in on corruption, making it a focus of their campaigns.
Opinion polls show the ANC is still backed by a majority of voters, but its support has been deteriorating, and some political analysts predict it could slip further in May.
Allegations in an array of fraud and bribery scandals are surfacing from witnesses at the judicial enquiries, implicating executives at state-run firms, sitting cabinet ministers and high-profile business leaders including three Indian brothers, the Guptas, accused of abusing close links to Zuma.
The brothers and Zuma deny the accusations.
Ramaphosa has set up a special investigating unit to deal with the allegations emerging at the enquiries and has promised that those implicated in corruption will face the law.
An unspecified number of investigations are already under way, with some awaiting a final go-ahead from prosecutors, according to police.
“We need to root out corruption from the face of South Africa,” Ramaphosa told a campaign event in the Sandton financial district of Johannesburg.
Some voters say they want more done, and quickly, about a problem economic development minister Ebrahim Patel has estimated could be costing the government 27 billion rand ($1.9 billion) a year.
Africa’s most industrialised country slid to number 73 in Berlin-based Transparency International’s global measure of perceived corruption in 2018, from 38 in 2001.
The ANC, late President Nelson Mandela’s liberation movement, has governed uninterrupted since the end of white minority rule in 1994.
Some political analysts said such scandals were unlikely to deprive the ANC of its core base, which is mostly rural and poor, and votes on issues that affect livelihoods, such as social grants.
But the allegations could drive away wavering voters and hit the party’s urban middle-class support, which may turn instead to the main opposition Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, the analysts added.
Ramaphosa’s ability to appeal to such swing voters will be an important measure of the ANC’s success in the election.
ANC spokesman Legoete said some had tarnished the name of the party for political gain, and allegations against its members should be put to law enforcement agencies who could deal with them properly.
The public protector, South Africa’s anti-graft watchdog, investigated three complaints, including from the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, alleging that Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta - who headed a large conglomerate with assets ranging from mining to media in South Africa - used their ties to the former president to amass substantial wealth and wield undue power.
It ordered an enquiry be set up to properly probe these allegations, describing the circumstances around some of them as “worrying”.
The Guptas deny any wrongdoing, lawyer Krause said. Zuma also denies wrongdoing, his spokesman said.
Separately, a public inquiry is reviewing allegations, denied by the Gupta brothers, that they unduly influenced Zuma regarding political appointments of cabinet ministers and the awarding of government contracts.
Zuma, who is fighting separate corruption charges related to a $2.2 billion arms deal in the 1990s, has not been charged with any crimes related to his ties to the Guptas.
A total of 342 million rand was to have been invested in the Vrede dairy farm over three years combined with contributions worth 228 million rand from the project’s private partners.
The result was supposed to have been a farm that produced 40,000 litres of milk from 500 cows.
Instead, prosecutors say roughly 220 million rand of the government’s money ended up in Gupta-linked accounts and paid for a lavish family wedding.
The Gupta family denies the accusations.
Ramaphosa’s appointment was followed by raids on Gupta businesses and their Johannesburg mansion. Officials seized assets worth millions of dollars, but the brothers have yet to appear at any inquiry and have left the country.
The Democratic Alliance candidate for premier in the Free State, Patricia Kopane, has called for charges related to the Vrede project to be reinstated.
A spokesman for the ANC-led provincial government said it was committed to sound financial management, would cooperate with all investigating agencies to tackle corruption where it exists and ensure it abides by the law.
Some legal experts say complex financial crimes are hard to investigate and prosecute, and many law enforcement agencies lack skilled staff and resources or are hamstrung by political interference.
In Vrede, Ncongwane’s patience has run out.
“There is no hope, not even a little bit,” he said, shaking his head, arms folded across his chest. “I don’t even have hope in the court. I just walk past it as if it is not there anymore.”
Sisipho Skweyiya reported from Vrede and Emma Rumney and Tiisetso Motsoeneng from Johannesburg; Additional reporting by Olivia Kumwenda in Vrede; Editing by James Macharia, Alexandra Zavis, Mike Collett-White and Timothy Heritage