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Auctioneering in South Africa, still has one foot in the mud.

Auctioneering in South Africa is bobbing like a cork in a sea of suspicion. Let’s take  a quick look at Rael Levitt’s confession, a raid by the Hawks, a subsequent application with the Western Cape High Court; South African Institute of Auctioneers (SAIA) submits a code of conduct and is there a conflict of interest with qualifications and Tirhani Mabunda?

Rael Levitt – the confession

Rael Levitt, courtesy IOL

Rael Levitt resigned his position as CEO of Auction Alliance in February upon being accused of paying dummy bidders to hike up prices during auctions. He has confessed to using Auction Alliance employee Deon Leygonie to hike up the bidding price at the Quoin Rock estate auction in Stellenbosch in December last year.

Astonishingly Levitt says he was unaware that what he was doing was against the rules.  He clarified that it was only when bidder Wendy Appelbaum became suspicious as to whether Leygonie was a genuine bidder, questioning how above-board the process was, that Levitt chose to read the rules and discovered that it was a forbidden practice. Leygonie never actually made any real bids, he was used to push up the bid from Appelbaum’s R35 million to R55 million.

In his confession Levitt divulges that after the Auction he met with friend, Israeli businessman Ariel Gerbi who then agreed to be registered as a bidder, making it appear as if the Auction Alliance employee had been bidding on his behalf.

{Source: Eyewitness News}

The Hawks, a Raid and Court Order

The Hawks are investigating: Fraud, money laundering, and a failure to keep accurate records of business, or wilfully destroying them in their swoop on Auction Alliance House. The Hawks are also tabling the movements, travel arrangements and appointments of Rael Levitt as far back as 1993.

The Raids were conducted in early August at Auction Alliance offices in the Cape Town CBD, Levitt’s residence, the offices of accounting firm Accountants@Law, and at auditing firm KPMG. Documents included Levitt’s diaries, Credit Card receipts and other documents. Other items included any financial records “of whatsoever nature”, including records of foreign bank accounts and tax returns with a bearing on the investigation.

Auction Alliance has however launched an application with the Western Cape High Court against the Minister of Police and a Cape Town magistrate to challenge the constitutionality of search warrants authorising recent police raids. In an affidavit before court, Levitt argued most of the offences listed in the annexures did not clearly specify who was suspected.

In a two pronged approach the application firstly brought an interdict to prevent the police from viewing material seized, and a second to challenge the constitutionality of the search warrants issued. This brought pressure to bear as parties reached a settlement.

In terms of the settlement, made an order of court by Acting Judge Rob Stelzner, the police undertook to return the seized items.

The lawyers must retain the items in sealed exhibit bags until September 7, or until determination of any application for a subpoena or search warrant brought before that date. The minister has undertaken to write a “without prejudice” proposal to Auction Alliance and Levitt on how police propose to be given access to the material seized.

 Code of Conduct

In the wake of the Auction Alliance scandal, the South African Institute of Auctioneers (SAIA) has proposed a code of conduct for the auction industry. This is reported as having been widely welcomed by practising auctioneers saying new entry requirements will help regulate and stabilise the industry. The draft will first be submitted to the public consultation process to be accredited by the Department of Trade and Industry.

Moneyweb spoke to Mark Kleynhans, director of Aucor Property who has also welcomed the SAIA proposal: “Aucor Property is in support of processes and procedures that bring credibility and transparency to the auction industry and we believe that a fair and consultative course of action in order to draft an all-encompassing code of conduct is required.”

However realtor Lew Geffen believes the proposal is only an attempt at damage control due to the lack of faith the public has in the auction process. Geffen believes a statutory code is what’s really needed to deal with ghost bidding or any other dodgy practices exposed of late.

Another sentiment that has emerged is a sympathy with the what is believed to be the majority of auctioneers who are credited by many in the property business as ethical and who put clients’ interests first.

Conflict of Interest

Tirhani Mabunda, courtesy IOL

Just when you thought it was safe. Tirhani Mabunda, the chair of SAIA who is also owner of the African Training Academy and School of Auctioneering (ATASA) is accused of having a conflict of interest.

SAIA’s draft code of conduct for the industry involves entry-level qualifications for all new recruits into the sector. Those currently practising as auctioneers will need to be evaluated and if they are considered unqualified, they will have to enrol for the NQF4 and NQF5 courses as well. 60% of practicing auctioneers are considered to be in such a position according to SAIA.

The year long course for candidates to get up to speed is accredited by the South African Qualifications Authority (Saqa). Who has the accreditation: none other than, Tirhani Mabunda, and his African Training Academy and School of Auctioneering (ATASA).

When asked the obvious question by Moneyweb about a conflict of interest Mabunda said he started ATASA in May 2008 but it was only registered as a company in 2009. He became chair of SAIA in 2010. At that stage the academy mainly offered courses for estate agents. Mabunda said he started compiling the curriculum for the auctioneering course in 2009 and it was subsequently accredited by Saqa and the SETA in 2010.

With the Auction Alliance scandal came new and panicked calls for the industry to be regulated. Mabunda described to Moneyweb, allegations that his school stood to gain from the proposed code of conduct and the entry level exam as “disingenuous”.

Of course one point is that ATASA may be the only institution providing the required training currently but this does not preclude any other industry players offering the same accredited courses.

In the end the matter is perhaps more one of perception than anything else but some say that perception is everything.

It seems the auction industry is far from being out of the woods with regards to any ambitions it may have, to appear above-board and worthy of trust.

It Takes Two to Tango: Who’s dancing with corrupt public works officials?

So Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi is hard at work stopping the haemorrhaging of funds and the corruption of officials in his floundering department. The dysfunctionality is rife and the mismanagement is astonishing. Corruption is under every leaf. But doesn’t it take two to tango? Who’s fingering private enterprise?

 

As anyone will recall from sibling rivalry that a game of “he did it-she did it” achieves little. But shouldn’t we be looking into who the protagonists are in the Public Works corruption saga? Apart from the guilty government officials, there’s someone else playing a significant role in this debacle.

 

Looking outside of this particular saga for a moment and at the infamous Arms Deal, lots of accusations and uninvestigated claims abound about government officials as far up as our own President. All worthy of answers and unbiased investigation – may truth prevail. Call it reactionary if you like or perhaps it’s a distraction but is it possible we could learn some of the truth by examining those who actually offered the bribes: those squeaky clean Europeans. After all there’s a stereo-type to maintain: isn’t corruption an African problem not a European problem?

 

Back to the South African government department of Public Works, the focus of attention is squarely on the officials. This is understandable, good and right. But there is a nameless faceless mass out there that has to be doing the corrupting, offering the bribes and greasing the wheels. Roux Shabangu would be an exception since he hasn’t managed to escape the glare of public media attention.

 

This is not to suggest yet another Third Force conspiracy either and one is not unaware that the corrupt historically have drawn more attention than the corruptor. But this should not negate zeal for the exposure of both parties in corruption, for the sake of weeding it out.

 

What now of the 22 irregular leases in Jo’burg involving payments of R64m, currently under investigation by the Special Investigating Unit? Let’s hope that not just the crooked officials are exposed but their private enterprise partners as well.

 

Nxesi is reported to have said: “We have instructed our lawyers to approach the high court to nullify these irregular lease agreements and institute action against whoever unduly benefited.” This is a start.

 

Public Works manages 1 277 leases on behalf of the SAPS. A task team of SAPS and Public Works officials are now investigating those too. Let’s see everyone come out into the light when those rocks are turned over. No protection for tango partners.

 

Which bring us to consider one of the consequences in the case of crooked leases: the inflated rates of the leases. Mr Nxesi said fraudulent and irregular leases, where the state paid exorbitant prices for leasing buildings, were so numerous that the property market in some areas had been permanently distorted! The knock on effect to the property industry is obvious.

 

Consider this next time you tut tut those wicked, naughty corrupt government officials. Someone from private enterprise is dancing the tango too. Before they shrink back into the shadows ask the question who’s doing the corrupting and how come they’re getting a free pass?