A former staff member in the Office of the Public Protector alleged in December 2018 that Busisiwe Mkhwebane used the phrase “radical economic transformation” in defending her controversial choice for CEO earlier that same year. Mkhwebane said she had “no recollection” of using the term.
When staff questioned Busisiwe Mkhwebane over the hiring of her former CEO Vussy Mahlangu in May 2018, she accused them of believing all black executives were corrupt and “resorted to the common rhetoric of radical economic transformation” (RET), in his defence.
The RET slogan is a political catchphrase synonymous with a faction of the ruling ANC aligned with former president Jacob Zuma, and refers to ANC policies of economic redress.
According to one former employee with direct knowledge of events that took place during the meeting, which was held to introduce Mahlangu to the rest of the staff, “the Public Protector did not hesitate to come to his defence”.
The Public Servants Association (PSA) labour union said in a letter to Parliament’s speaker Thandi Modise this month that it formally requested that Mkhwebane not accept Mahlangu’s December 2019 resignation, which it views as “another way of abdicating accountability for his actions within the PPSA [Public Protector of South Africa]”.
Mahlangu’s last day, on Friday, was a sad day for Mkhwebane, her spokesperson said in a written response to questions.
The union has asked Parliament to institute an investigation into “maladministration and the purging of employees”. Union representatives will now embark on a process to gather evidence from its members to support its case.
Mkhwebane denies any purge has taken place in her office.
The PSA’s request is over and above the process launched in Parliament through a motion by the DA, which under newly-adopted rules will see parties nominate members of a committee that will decide whether or not to remove Mkhwebane from office.
Earlier this week, Mkhwebane described the parliamentary process as “unlawful and unconstitutional”.
She would be the first public protector to be subjected to this process.
The latter half of 2019 saw several high-profile suspensions, including that of chief operations officer (COO) Basani Baloyi, as well as chief and senior investigators Pona Mogaladi, Tebogo Kekana, Abongile Madiba and Lesedi Sekele. This sparked fears at the PSA of a purge of staff seen to be critical of Mkhwebane.
Oupa Segalwe, Mkhwebane’s spokesperson, told News24 on Saturday the suspensions and disciplinary processes of the staff members was not a purge. Kekana and Baloyi’s cases, unrelated to one another, were also unrelated to the suspensions and disciplinary processes against Mogaladi, Madiba and Sekele.
Farms for friends
The concerns raised by staff at a meeting where Mahlangu was introduced, stemmed from him being “implicated” in a “farms for friends” scandal involving former land reform minister Gugile Nkwinti, an ANC staff member acquaintance of his, and a R97m Limpopo farm, Bekendvlei, in 2011.
Mkhwebane’s office was seized with an investigation into the affair, following a complaint by the DA’s Thomas Walters at the time Mahlangu was hired – causing Public Protector of South Africa investigators busy with the probe to raise the alarm.
Mahlangu was the deputy director general in Nkwinti’s department, and the man who carried out the minister’s instructions. But Mkhwebane told News24, Mahlangu was not a subject of the investigation.
This revelation over the meeting is contained in a Protected Disclosure statement made by former Public Protector investigator and manager, advocate Isaac Matlawe, which he sent to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office and the Auditor General in December 2018.
The Presidency was asked to clarify what action it took, if any, after receiving Matlawe’s statement. No response was forthcoming at the time of writing.
Matlawe, in his statement, reveals that Mahlangu was “implicated in improper conduct” in the investigation, which led to concerns being raised by him at the meeting.
Mkhwebane’s final report, which relied on evidence from Mahlangu, made no findings against him, but focused its attention on Nkwinti.
Mkhwebane would not directly confirm or deny having knowledge, now or then, about Mahlangu being implicated and would only say that Mahlangu disclosed details of the matter during his interview confirming his Labour Court challenge.
Mahlangu’s version, as captured in the report, claims he was merely acting on Nkwinti’s instructions when expediting the purchase of the farm and concluding a lease agreement with Present and Boshomane.
The Labour Court has previously upheld the position that an employee who carries out unlawful instructions does so at their own risk.
She dismissed Matlawe’s questioning of her decision to hire Mahlangu as having come from an “uninformed position”.
“When a member of the union posed the question to the Public Protector during the meeting, she offered clarity to assure staff at large that due diligence was done… those that have an axe to grind with the Public Protector continue to peddle this tired claim that she has links with a faction of the governing party, knowing very well that the media will gladly publish the information without a shred of evidence because such claims accord with the narrative that certain sections of the press want to entrench in the minds of the public,” Segalwe said.
“She has absolutely no recollection of any reference to radical economic transformation at the meeting concerned.”
Matlawe resigned in December 2018 and sent the Protected Disclosure to the Presidency days after his resignation. While serving his notice period, he was served with a notice of suspension.
Not so secure
Matlawe, who at the time of his resignation in December 2018 was the PSA branch chairman for the PPSA, also raised concerns in his disclosure over Mahlangu’s security clearance.
When Mahlangu was dismissed as deputy director general in the department of land reform, he approached the Labour Court. Subsequent delays in finalising the matter against his former employer and question marks over his involvement in the Nkwinti scandal, and the Labour Court matter, prevented Mahlangu from obtaining a security clearance from the State Security Agency (SSA).
Mahlangu was without a security clearance for his entire tenure as CEO, a letter from Mkhwebane’s office to the PSA in August 2019 confirms.
“In essence, the SSA could not conclude Mr Mahlangu’s vetting process due to the Labour Court case involving him currently pending… As frequently briefed by Mr Mahlangu on the progress of his case, we have been made to understand that the date of hearing will soon be issued, whereafter we believe the vetting process by SSA will be finalised,” Mkhwebane’s chief of staff Sibusiso Nyembe wrote in a letter responding to a request for information from the PSA.
“The present employment contract of Mr Mahlangu is subject to a condition that the SSA issues him with a security clearance certificate within a reasonable time,” Nyembe added.
Despite this assertion by Nyembe to the PSA, Segalwe on Saturday said a security clearance was never a condition of employment.
“The advertisement made it clear that once appointed, the successful candidate would be expected to obtain a clearance,” Segalwe said.
“Some applications for a clearance take a very long time to be finalised and there is nothing that the Public Protector can do about that. All that she can do is to ensure that staff do apply for clearance. From that point on, the competent organ of state takes over.”
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