The former head of the National Prosecuting Authority, advocate Vusi Pikoli, finds himself unemployed again because of political interference.
This time, though, he has lost his job in the private sector after his bosses at the fifth-largest auditing firm in the country, SizweNtsalubaGobodo (SNG), asked him to resign because “some ANC people” threatened to cut off government contracts if they did not fire Pikoli.
In a startling interview, Pikoli, once a shareholder, director and partner in the forensic investigations at the firm, confirmed to the Mail & Guardian he was indeed unemployed after he was told “there is a clear expectation to resign” at the end of February this year.
Pikoli left SizweNtsalubaGobodo in the middle of March.
“I am reluctant to speak about leaving SNG,” Pikoli said. “But yes, I was told that there was a clear expectation of me to resign because some unnamed people in the ANC were not happy that I was working for SNG and that it would in future be difficult to award contracts to SNG because of me, I was told.”
Who to employ
“I did tell the company that if I resigned I would be unable to lie about the reasons for leaving. I warned them that it’s not the business of government to tell them who to employ and who not [to],” he said.
Pikoli said he was first told, telephonically, towards the end of last year that “there’s a problem. Gobodo [Nonkululeku Gobodo, chairperson of the firm] phoned me and said: ‘Vusi, there is this thing … this problem of yours with the ANC is coming up again and is causing concerns in the company. Some people in the ANC told me that we would no longer get government work because you are working here. ANC people are now threatening not to give us work,’ she told me,” Pikoli said.
Gobodo refused to name “the ANC people” who had raised objections to Pikoli’s employment at the company when Pikoli asked. “She didn’t want to tell me who exerted pressure on her to fire me,” he said.
The first job Pikoli lost was as national director of public prosecutions at the NPA when he was controversially suspended on Heritage Day, September 24 2007 by then-president Thabo Mbeki and subsequently fired by then-president Kgalema Motlanthe (see “A history of ruffling official feathers”).
Pikoli said about 90% of SNC’s work came from the government. “Gobodo told me [the awarding of] the Transnet contract is gathering dust on the [public enterprise] minister’s desk because I’m employed at SNG. She said that [the audit contract] had sat on the minister’s desk for a long time and that the delay in the sign-off was because of me,” Pikoli said.
SizweNtsalubaGobodo is a large firm that employs more than 800 people. It has 45 directors and its biggest single contract is with Transnet – a five-year contract worth an estimated R70-million a year. It was awarded the contract in February.
The total value of the Transnet external auditing contract, R300-million, has never before been awarded to a 100% black-owned auditing firm. It is also the first time that one of the “big four” auditing firms – PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG – did not land the job.
The firm’s chief executive, Victor Sekese, answering on behalf of Gobodo, said: “The exit of Vusi Pikoli from SizweNtsalubaGobodo is a private matter between the two parties. We have not been instructed by anybody on this matter. We have no further comments.”
Sekese also denied any political interference: “Transnet have their own procurement processes that they follow in the appointment of auditors and so does the government as a shareholder. In addition, we were never at any stage asked by either Transnet or the department of public enterprises to dismiss Vusi Pikoli.”
Both Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba and Transnet denied that Pikoli’s version of why he was asked to resign was correct.
According to Transnet spokesperson Mboniso Sigonyela, the awarding of the contract to SizweNtsalubaGobodo was already decided at a Transnet board meeting on November 24 last year. Yet the minister only decided on February 14 to appoint the firm and made the announcement on February 20.
Curiously, just days after the November 2011 Transnet board meeting, Pikoli got the first inkling that SizweNtsalubaGobodo was under pressure to get rid of him.
“I was first called at the end of last year and told of this pressure to get rid of me when Gobodo phoned, saying there’s an issue with my employment at SNG. Days later I was told by Gobodo to ‘ignore’ the conversation. But then, right after the announcement of SNG landing the Transnet contract, I was asked to resign,” Pikoli said.
Gigaba announced the awarding of the Transnet contract at a press conference on February 20. Barely a week later, Pikoli was paid six months’ salary and asked to leave with immediate effect.
“I was asked to finish the work I was busy with but asked to resign immediately. I left by the middle of March. My resignation was effective from the end of February,” Pikoli said.
According to his shareholder’s agreement, he had to be given three months’ notice.
Pikoli refused to speculate about whether it was Gigaba himself who had pressed SizweNtsalubaGobodo to fire him. “I don’t know and I don’t want to speculate. There was this amazing coincidence, though,” Pikoli said.
As the sole shareholder of Transnet, Gigaba, as the minister of public enterprises, had the final say on the awarding of the auditing contract. He held various meetings with the Transnet board about it.
Gigaba’s spokesperson, Mayihlome Tshwete, said in a statement to the M&G that the minister had merely implemented the recommendation from the board of a state-owned enterprise. “The minister did not set any conditions for SNG in its deliberations with Transnet, least of all that SNG should dissociate themselves from any of its employees or associates. Allegations to the contrary are false and malicious,” Tshwete said.
Sigonyela said: “Transnet has never made it a requirement of the awarding of the contract that any employee of SizweNtsalubaGobodo must resign. We wish to state categorically that no one at Transnet required that advocate Pikoli leave his employ.” He also said Transnet was “not aware of hostility between advocate Pikoli and the ANC”.
Pikoli told the M&G that when Gobodo and Sekese called him to a meeting during which he was pressured to resign, Gobodo said she “can’t justify losing contracts because of one person”.
“She said as chair it would be difficult to justify to directors losing government contracts and as the leadership she had to look after the more than 800 employees. She said SNG will not issue a statement announcing my resignation.
“So I resigned. If there was this feeling that I’m causing them to lose business and I’m working with people who are not happy with me, I can’t work in that environment,” Pikoli said.
When Gigaba officially announced the Transnet contract, he said: “The appointment of SNG takes place during a critical time for Transnet when it is rolling out a capital expenditure programme worth R300-billion to the economy, linking communities, towns, cities and provinces and creating sustainable economic development. We hope that the accounting firm will not only be focusing on number crunching for Transnet, but will become a strategic business adviser and support Transnet in meeting its national objectives.”
Gobodo appointed Pikoli as head of the forensic unit at SizweNtsalubaGobodo in August 2010. At the time, Gobodo, the first black female chartered accountant in South Africa, proudly issued a press statement stating how South Africa’s top prosecutor was “head-hunted” to run the forensics unit at the firm.
“Good governance and transparency have become increasingly crucial,” Gobodo said. “We believe that he is the right calibre of person to lead the strong forensics team – he has excellent skills and training. It was a decision taken in the interests of the firm, although we knew that there could be political perceptions attached to it.
Angry and frustrated
“He brings an enormous wealth of experience in the investigation and prosecution of serious financial and complex economic rimes, including fraud and corruption,” she said.
SizweNtsalubaGobodo declined to comment on reasons why Pikoli was asked to resign.
Pikoli said he was “angry and frustrated” when he was asked to leave. “It’s important to jealously guard one’s independence, professionalism and integrity. To be told what to do by a government is not acceptable in forensics. I could not and still can’t believe that people in the ANC would deny me a means of a livelihood.”
Pikoli is an active branch member of the ANC. As member of the advisory council of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, Pikoli was instrumental when it joined the Centre for Applied Legal Studies in litigation against the government.
The two bodies took it to the Constitutional Court last year challenging the constitutionality, validity and legality of President Jacob Zuma’s decision to request Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo to continue to perform active service for a further period of five years.
They won the case against government, arguing that Zuma’s decision would infringe on the principle of the separation of powers, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
A history of ruffling official feathers
Vusumzi Pikoli (54) grew up in Port Elizabeth and joined the ANC while he was still in high school. “Like most of my friends, we were guerrillas by night and students by day,” he said.
Pikoli went to school in Mtatha and obtained his master’s degree in law from the University of Zimbabwe. He went into exile to receive military training as an Umkhonto weSizwe soldier in Angola in 1980 and also worked for the ANC’s legal and constitutional department in exile.
Pikoli returned to South Africa in 1990 and was in private practice until 1994, when he was appointed as special adviser to then-justice minister Dullah Omar. In 1997 he became deputy director general in the department of justice and constitutional development and two years later was promoted to the post of director general.
In February 2005 he was appointed as national director of public prosecutions at the NPA. He was at its helm during the country’s most politically dramatic period: when criminal charges were instigated against the then South Africa police commissioner, Jackie Selebi and the ANC’s president, Jacob Zuma.
Then-president Thabo Mbeki suspended him – Selebi was a close ally and friend of Mbeki. Pikoli was subsequently fired by then-president Kgalema Motlanthe, who was a Zuma ally.
He ultimately lost his job because he refused to allow political interference with the work of the NPA. It was after his refusal to grant Mbeki a requested two-week period before issuing a warrant of arrest for Selebi that the then-president suspended him, hoping it would help him to beat the odds at Polokwane.
He was suspended weeks before the ANC’s Polokwane conference while Mbeki was fighting for his political life. At the time Zuma was still facing corruption charges, which were also dealt with by Pikoli’s office.
The subsequent Ginwala commission, which was set up to determine Pikoli’s fitness to head the NPA, found him “a person of unimpeachable integrity and a fit and proper person to hold office”. Yet Motlanthe sacked him in what was seen as the government’s insistence to punish insubordination to the ANC.
Menzi Simelane, the man instrumental in Pikoli’s sacking, replaced him as the new head of the NPA in 2008.
At the Ginwala commission Simelane’s conduct was found to be “highly irregular and left much to be desired”. It was Simelane who drafted the letter that contained an unconstitutional instruction to Pikoli not to arrest Selebi. Pikoli disobeyed the instruction, precipitating the crisis that led to his suspension and firing.
Pikoli contested his dismissal and on August 11 2009 was granted an interim interdict by the high court in Pretoria that prevented Zuma from appointing a successor to the position.
On November 21 that year the government reached an out-of-court settlement with Pikoli to stop his legal bid for reinstatement. Part of the settlement was that Pikoli would be employed by government, but he declined.
Pikoli was head-hunted by SizweNtsalubaGobodo 18 months ago but was asked to resign in February.