Zumaville ‘mayor’ calls the shots
The man in charge of developing a new town on President Jacob Zuma’s doorstep is being accused by officials in the rural development department of being too big for his crocodile-skin boots.
Deebo Mzobe, a distant relative of Zuma and deputy chair of the Masibambisane Rural Development Initiative – which Zuma chairs – has earned the nickname “the unofficial mayor of Zumaville” after revelations that he was planning to build a R2 billion town outside Nkandla.
A rural development official who worked with Mzobe this week said: “He shows up with his flashy dress style and crocodile shoes and tells us what to do in meetings. It is a very unhealthy situation.
“He is only a civilian, but the kind of influence he exercises in the department is staggering. He simply picks up a phone and phones a minister. It has happened before my own eyes: the minister of agriculture, land, economic development, he has a direct line to them.”
Several sources in the rural development and land reform department confirmed that Mzobe was now regularly attending critical rural development meetings.
But Mzobe hit back, saying his organisation was simply a non-profit entity trying to uplift the lives of people living in rural areas.
He admitted to attending government meetings regularly, but denied it was for sinister reasons.
He said: “It is not Masibambisane who convene these meetings. As stakeholders in rural development we have to be at these meetings.
“We want to make rural development happen in the areas where we are active and as a stakeholder we have to be at these meetings.”
Officials who City Press interviewed were worried about how strong a force Mzobe had become in the department. They say Mzobe had organised several meetings with ministers at Joburg’s OR Tambo International Airport.
Sources say that most of the calls and meetings concerned development in Nkandla.
But Mzobe downplayed his influence with the ministers.
“The influence with ministers is simply not true. I speak to ministers like I would speak to you, to promote Masibambisane,” he said.
He admitted to having a close relationship with Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.
“Normally we spoke with her quite often, more than with other ministers, but we discussed nothing serious,” he said.
A departmental official said Mzobe used his influence “to make things happen” where he wanted it to happen.
Mzobe reportedly travels first class and stays in five star hotels, including The Michelangelo in Sandton, when attending rural development meetings. He is adamant that he picks up the bills himself.
“If I go around in rural areas, I use my own car, I pay for petrol and I pay for tollgates. And if I go to Gauteng, I pay for my own ticket (and) pay for my own accommodation,” he said.
Mzobe said he got a good discount at the Michelangelo because he stayed there regularly for three years.
“The government is not paying a cent and Masibambisane is not paying either. I use my own credit card with money from my business,” he said.
Mzobe admitted that he briefed Zuma about the government meetings.
He said: “President Zuma is a chairperson of Masibambisane. He needs to know what we are doing. He dedicates a couple of days a year to meet with the people working in Masibambisane.”
In a previous interview with City Press, Mzobe said Zuma had him “working 24 hours” to get development projects off the ground.
Mzobe denied that he was advising the president on rural policy.
“No, the president has his own advisers.”
But officials are wary of and confused about Mzobe’s role in the department.
One said: “It is strange for a private individual to have that power. It is undue influence and we in the department are worried. Who is this guy that has this much influence?”
Besides the Zumaville project, Masibambisane has also enabled Zuma to go around in rural areas and hand out tractors, seed and fertilisers in what critics say is politicking ahead of the ANC’s Mangaung conference.
City Press revealed last month that Joemat-Pettersson’s department paid at least R268 000 to the project in the last financial year.
The rural development department did not respond to questions.