Matome Hlabioa, who "lent" ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema a R1.2-million Range Rover, has been red-flagged by the auditor-general for receiving irregular tenders from the Limpopo government.
In total, Hlabioa has won more than R200-million in tenders from the province, including R60-million in deals to build three schools. He denied Malema pulled strings for him.
Now a confidential "audit finding" sent to the Limpopo Department of Education on April 29 flags irregularities and sloppy record-keeping with regard to 102 tenders - including the three tenders worth R60-million won by Hlabioa's MPPJ Property Development Company - and asks the province to explain them.
Regarding the company's largest single contract for a school, worth R33-million, the department could not:
- Provide the bid documents;
- Provide any record of how well the bid scored during the adjudication process; or
- Provide any record of compliance.
When contacted, Hlabioa said if any tender documents were missing it was the department's fault.
"We don't get tenders through the back door ... we submit all the relevant documents," he said. He declined to provide the tender documents to the Sunday Times.
Hlabioa admitted he had a close relationship with Malema: "He's like my son. I started looking after him when he was very young, since 2001."
But he denied Malema was now repaying the favour, saying he won tenders based on the quality of his work, "not whether I know Julius or President (Jacob) Zuma".
Hlabioa said he would continue to support Malema even if "he becomes president" because "I'm not going to let that boy suffer".
"When Julius gets a job which pays him money (and) a salary, I will gladly say to him, 'My man, you are emancipated, you are independent, no more'," he said.
Dickson Masemola, the MEC for Education in Limpopo, told the Sunday Times that the auditor-general's document was simply "a discussion between the auditor-general and my department on issues they may have picked up" - not the final audit. Masemola said "it would be inappropriate to comment" before he'd received the final report.
While these issues could be resolved before the final auditor-general's report is released, the red flags raised during the audit appear to support claims that tenders are manipulated in the province to suit politically powerful figures.
A new group called the Forum of Limpopo Entrepreneurs spoke out this week about what it said was widespread tender corruption in the province.
"We suspect Malema used his powers to influence who gets tenders in the province," said Siviko Mabunda, secretary of the forum. The forum claims to have more than 2000 members.
"The police must do their job and investigate. If they find any wrongdoing, (Malema) must be arrested," he said.
Malema still enjoys support in many quarters in a predominantly rural province where 46% of working-age adults can't find jobs.
Emmanuel Makgoga, who represents poor communities living on mines in eastern Limpopo, said many rural youths looked up to Malema and did not hold his flashy lifestyle against him.
"Here he's still our hero," said Makgoga. "We don't see any problem with his money because he's the president - unless it was got by illegal means."
The Mail& Guardian reported this week that a company with direct links to Malema was involved in managing and disbursing a reported R4.6-billion worth of tenders and contracts on behalf of Limpopo's Department of Roads and Transport .
The paper reported that On-Point Engineers was formed just days before it successfully bid for a three-year contract worth R52-million .
Malema confirmed to the newspaper that his Ratanang Family Trust was a "shareholder" in On-Point Engineers but insisted he did not "participate actively" in the company or influence tenders.
"I just queue when the dividends are due ... not me, the trust does that," he said.
Attempts to solicit comment from Malema were not successful at the time of going to print.