Former president Kgalema Motlanthe, left, with African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Former president Kgalema Motlanthe, left, with African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE letter written by Beaufort West mayor Truman Prince is a devastating piece of evidence. Recently revealed by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, it’s the kind of thing you usually see only in movies.

A smoking gun, so to speak — absolute and definitive proof of the manipulation of a government tender for the benefit of the African National Congress (ANC).

The linchpin paragraph in the letter, signed by Prince and addressed to the Construction Education and Training Authority, is: "We are an ANC-led municipality, we are therefore in need of financial injection for our 2016 local government election campaign and therefore will also want to see construction companies sympathetic and having a relationship with the ANC to benefit in order for these companies to inject funds in our election campaign process."

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YOU sort of have to admire the blunt forthrightness on display. Not a euphemism in sight.

Former ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe said in 2007: "This rot is across the board. It’s not confined to any level or any area of the country. Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money."

In evidence of that claim, Prince’s letter constitutes Exhibit A.

It’s not unique. In 2011, Democratic Alliance MP Wilmot James revealed a similar undertaking sought by Hessequa Municipality executive mayor Christopher Taute.

That letter, on a municipality letterhead just like the one from Prince, read: "As you currently have contracts with our municipality — which were made possible by this ANC-run council — I would like to make a friendly request that you contribute a donation to the ANC for the election campaign, in order to continue building on your good relations with this ANC-run council."

You can be pretty sure there are many other similar letters out there that mirror this sort of brazen abuse of power and position.

And, as ever, the legitimating force behind it is President Jacob Zuma.

Speaking at the ANC’s 101st anniversary gala dinner in January 2013, Zuma said: "We’re not forcing people … you can support and be a supporter, but if you go beyond that and become a member, (and) if you’re a businessman, your business will multiply…. Everything you touch will multiply … a wise businessperson will support the ANC … because supporting the ANC means you’re investing very well in your business."

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THAT’S the coin put into the ANC machine; Prince’s letter is the product that drops out of the slot.

The ruling party, inevitably, protests its innocence: "The ANC has not sent a message to all its mayors to say give tenders to (those) who will fund the ANC," said secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. "He can’t be reckless on behalf of the ANC".

You get the sense Mantashe means, "he shouldn’t have got caught". His rebuttal is marked by the lack of moral judgment or principled objection.

But then, on what basis is the ANC able to offer such things these days?

George Washington Plunkitt (1842-1924) was perhaps the most famous member of the Tammany Hall machine — now a metonym for the Democratic Party political operation that used to control all aspects of New York politics with a vice-like grip, from state patronage to nomination to office.

Plunkitt, like Prince, was forthright and to the point. "There’s an honest graft," he said, "and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’: I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.

"Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements.

"Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place. I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighbourhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before."

Of those who practised "honest graft", Plunkitt said: "They didn’t steal a dollar from the city treasury. They just seen their opportunities and took them. That is why, when a reform administration comes in and spends a half-million dollars in tryin’ to find the public robberies they talked about in the campaign, they don’t find them. The books are always all right. The money in the city treasury is all right. Everything is all right."

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THERE’S a lot of this kind of "honesty" in the ANC. But even Plunkitt drew a distinction between his particular brand of "honest graft" and what he called, "dishonest graft" — outright fraud or theft. Even he had a line in the sand.

Everywhere you look, the ANC sees its "opportunities" and takes them: luxury cars, hotel rooms, overseas trips and a thousand other personal indulgences. They are all its due in much the same way a government tender represents a chance to cash in.

It’s not dishonest; it’s just the way of things. Being in government is an opportunity and if one can manipulate an outcome to the ANC’s advantage or, indeed, to the advantage of a particular individual, well, all is fair and love and war.

The Luthuli House machine — SA’s Tammany Hall — has so lost its moral bearings, it can no longer distinguish between right and wrong. There is its right — as in what it believes is due to it — and wrong — those things it believes it cannot get away with. But, ultimately, it sits atop a giant bank vault and getting its hands on riches inside is just a matter of how best it can fashion a bureaucracy to deliver unto it those things to which it believes it is inherently entitled.

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YOU can be fairly sure Prince sees nothing wrong with his letter. Indeed, he is quoted as saying, "According to me, there is nothing wrong." Neither did Taute see anything wrong. Nor everyone in the other rotten transactions to which Motlanthe referred. If a "wise" businessperson will support the ANC, presumably it is unwise not to. And that isn’t a reference to hard economics, it’s a moral imperative.

Inside the ANC’s universe, it is hardly immoral to set out in black and white, as Prince did, the advantages of this kind of relationship.

The ANC’s political culture has so warped under Zuma that honesty has become dishonesty. Plunkitt would approve. Its moral compass has inverted. It doesn’t use the measurements anyone on the outside does to gauge the difference between right and wrong.

SA’s money, be it held by the Treasury or the private sector, is the ANC’s money. Getting its hands on it is an "honest" day’s work and, all across SA, it has a thousand people hard at the grindstone, explaining its work ethic of "honest graft" and reaping the rewards.

Why the party keeps up any pretence at all is what amazes. Prince and Taute should be applauded. At the very least, they are willing to do away with all those clumsy metaphors the president indulges in.