Selling soap while the poor starve

Suspended welfare official recruited staff and distributed household products from her Pretoria office building.

Until this week Dr Fido Maforah, chief director in the Department of Welfare, was in charge of doling out millions of rands to the poorest of the poor - money that has remained unused - but she also ran a lucrative business on the side, writes Heather Robertson

Sunday Times (Pretoria, South Africa) March 26, 2000


While controversy rages around the allocation of R204-million to the poor, the woman who was in charge of the money was selling toothpaste, window cleaner and roll-on deodorants during office hours.

Dr Fido Maforah, chief director in the Department of Welfare, was suspended this week by the Minister of Welfare and Population Development, Zola Skweyiya, after allegations of financial irregularities in her department.

She was also allegedly recruiting staff as distributors for Amway - one of the world's largest direct-selling companies - to sell household goods including pots, pans, perfumes, washing powder, cosmetics, multivitamins and car-washing liquids. For every person she recruited into her "sideline business" Maforah was paid an extra bonus.

On Wednesday this week, shortly after her suspension, Maforah resigned from Amway after being an independent distributor for four years. Allegations that she sold Amway products during office hours were made this week by staff members she tried to recruit and those who had worked for her.

They claim that she:

Displayed her products to provincial welfare co-ordinators during poverty alleviation workshops held in expensive hotels;

Kept her Amway products in her office cupboard in the Pretoria headquarters of the national Department of Welfare in the Hallmark Building;

Held group sessions every Thursday with her Amway recruits at the department;

Recruited five staff members into joining Amway - some have left the department but are still distributors. The Sunday Times is in possession of the names of these five; and

Asked a former welfare director, in 1997 when she worked for the department in the Western Cape, at a meeting in Mmbatho, if she could use a committee room to do "sideline business" to recruit and sell Amway products. The director reported her to the then director general, Lucy Abrahams, but no action was taken.

Amway's general manager, Simon van Zuydam, confirmed that Maforah had been an independent Amway distributor from September 1997 until Wednesday this week. "She notified the company that she was resigning from her distributorship," Van Zuydam said. She is no longer authorised to engage in any Amway business. Her former distributorship is now held by her husband, Meshack Maforah.

"Our distributors are bound by a code of ethics. For example, most civil servants, including active military personnel, policemen and judges, may not engage in third party activities and normally will not be able to establish Amway businesses. Amway will investigate the facts around Dr Maforah and will take the appropriate action," he said.

Maforah yesterday denied that she had been an Amway distributor or that she had ever sold their products or recruited her staff.

"It's a vendetta against me. I deny all the allegations. I only used their products, I never sold them. I did pay a R400 joining fee to Amway but this was only to buy the products for personal use at a 30% discount," she said.

A former secretary who worked for her said Maforah had invited her and other secretaries to an Amway meeting at a primary school in Pretoria.

"She wanted us to pay R400 and sell Amway products. I know of five people in the Welfare Department who signed up as distributors, reporting directly to Maforah. They in turn recruited other staffers."

Since she became chief director in May 1998, Maforah's department has been riddled with allegations of corruption. One of her assistant directors, Olga Mtheleni, is in jail for defrauding a poverty relief project of R800 000.

Another former senior department official in the Western Cape is being investigated by the state prosecutor for allegedly defrauding the poverty alleviation programmes of approximately R500 000.

The Auditor-General disclosed in February that the Welfare Department had spent less than 1% of the R204-million it was allocated for poverty relief in the 1998/99 financial year. The crisis in the department led to a Cabinet decision last week to undertake a general evaluation of all expenditure by departments of the R1-billion allocated to poverty relief in 1998/99. The matter is expected to be discussed by the Cabinet on Wednesday, after which an announcement on what happened to the funds will be made.

Mafora's suspension "is normal standard practice" during an internal inquiry, Skweyiya said.

The investigation revolves around two main issues: an inquiry into alleged fraud involving poverty relief funds which led to the arrest of Mtheleni, and Maforah's family links to a non-governmental organisation which was allocated funds.

Maforah's husband, Meshack, is the operations manager for the organisation Reach and Teach, which has a farming project in Northern Province. The project received large amounts of poverty relief funds from the department.

Parliament heard this month that poor South Africans were deprived of more than R500-million over the past three years because the Welfare Department was incapable of distributing funds, including those for poverty relief, disability grants, pensions, child support grants and HIV/AIDS projects.


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