Labour Court to rule on irregular public works appointments

Sunday Times 18 August 2019

A top government official found to have diverted millions of rands of taxpayers’ money to the ill-fated Nkandla project is at the centre of a new scandal involving a rash of irregular appointments at the department of public works & infrastructure.

The department’s director-general Sam Vukela was slammed in former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s 2014 report on the upgrades to former president Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence, and later lost his job before being reinstated with R2m in backpay. Now Vukela is at the centre of a new row, with a Public Service Commission (PSC) probe criticising his part in a slew of irregular appointments during a massive hiring spree in his department in 2017 and early 2018. In all, 714 new officials were given jobs.

Now the Labour Court in Johannesburg is being asked to reverse 12 of the senior management appointments, 10 of which Vukela, and former minister and key Jacob Zuma ally Nathi Nhleko, approved.

All 12 senior officials, who earned between R1m and R1.25m a year, were unqualified for the posts they got, with some hired ahead of more suitable candidates.

At the same time, and in a development many believe is in retaliation for a cleanup initiated by former minister Thulas Nxesi and pursued by his successor Patricia de Lille, the department has been rattled by an anonymous complaint to public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane which fingers some of the officials leading the cleanup.

Last week, copies of the anonymous complaint to Mkhwebane were placed at the entrance of the department’s Pretoria headquarters, in an apparent attempt to bring those leading the cleanup into disrepute.

The PSC report recommends that Vukela be hauled over the coals for his role in the appointment of the unqualified senior managers who are now fighting for their jobs after De Lille went to court to act on its recommendations. The report is one of two handed to De Lille by the PSC after its investigation into an “unprecedented number of appointments” during Nhleko’s tenure.

In an interview on Friday, De Lille said that before Nxesi was axed by Zuma in March 2017 and replaced with Nhleko, he had gone to the Treasury to ask for R450m to hire staff the department desperately needed, such as engineers and quantity surveyors.

But when he was returned to public works by President Cyril Ramaphosa the following year, he discovered that “the money had been used to employ 688 other people and there was no money left for critical staff”. Nxesi then asked the PSC to probe the appointments. Vukela did not respond to this allegation.

The PSC’s first report into the hiring of 37 senior managers was finalised. Now a provisional report into the hiring of 677 junior staff — 94 of whom were found to be irregular — is also on De Lille’s desk.

The first report found a string of irregular appointments signed off, including:

  • Meme Kgagara, as director of prestige property management in the Cape Town office for which a three-year property management or legal qualification was required. She got the job with a home economics degree and an honours in anthropology;
  • Robert Muthanyi, who needed a police or behavioural science degree for the chief director security management job he applied for, but was hired with a BA in history and political studies;
  • Advocate Mondli Qulo, the former chief director of legal services. He was hired as a legal specialist in Nhleko’s ministry in August 2017 and was appointed to chief director three months later without the senior management and contract and lease drafting experience needed; and
  • Teboho Phiri, the Pretoria regional manager, who needed a four-year built environment or legal degree but landed the job with only a diploma in civil engineering.

Kgagara, Muthanyi and Phiri said they were aware of the report’s findings, but declined to comment, referring the Sunday Times to the department. De Lille said the matter was before court.

In the report, Vukela defended Kgagara’s appointment, stating: “the department is of a strong view that the bachelor’s degree in home economics is relevant taking into account the responsibilities of the position in relation to interior decorations, furnishing of ministerial and parliamentary residences, events management and co-ordination and facilities management (cleaning)”.

But the PSC found Kgagara, whose responsibilities include dealing with budgets for ministerial homes and parliament buildings, did not have the “necessary extensive experience in the property environment, of which five years should be in middle management”.

Vukela justified Qulo’s appointment in the report by saying that the advocacy profession “makes them managers in the administration of court”. Qulo, who resigned after the PSC investigation began, was one of a group of KwaZulu-Natal lawyers and teachers who in 2014 came to Zuma’s defence after the Nkandla report’s release, arguing it was flawed and that Zuma should not have to repay any of the money.

This week, Qulo said he was aware of the PSC report and its findings. He said the department served court papers on him “a few months ago” and his lawyers were dealing with the matter.

The PSC report recommends that De Lille “facilitate that corrective action be taken” against Vukela “for approving the appointment” of the senior staffers.

But Vukela hit back, telling the Sunday Times the report was flawed. “There are serious legal errors in that report. It needs to be corrected through engagement between ourselves and the commission,” he said.

Vukela also said he wanted to have it reviewed in court, but the state’s legal advisers “told me that they cannot support my court review … and if I wanted to do it I should pay for it myself”.

As to why he did not implement the report’s recommendations within the PSC’s 60-day time-frame, Vukela said it was because “I differed with the former minister in law on how it should be implemented”.

He also accused Nxesi of trying to sideline him by appointing “another official within the department to implement the PSC report”, which was not in his power to do. Vukela said he had not discussed the PSC report with De Lille.

However, De Lille said that a month ago she approached outside attorneys to proceed with implementing the report’s recommendations after “there was interference” in the department. Once she receives the final version of the PSC’s second report, she said she will send both reports to Ramaphosa with its recommendation that Vukela be disciplined.

PSC spokesperson Humphrey Ramafoko said De Lille was briefed on its investigations in June and had asked for extra time to provide further comments. De Lille said she would be commenting this week.

Tahir Maepa, spokesperson of the Public Servants Association, representing “some” of the 12 senior managers, said they were “disturbed” that De Lille had already gone to court to set aside their appointments.

“The department, before taking action against these employees, must show what it has done to the interviewing panels and those who signed the appointment letters. We can’t have a situation where only our members are victimised while those who took the decision go free,” he said.

Maepa also said that the job requirements contained in the advertisements were “ambiguous”. Attempts to reach Nhleko, including through his lawyer, failed.

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