A report by Thuli Madonsela into travel expense abuse could put the department of agriculture's queen bee in the firing line.
A report by the public protector is likely to find Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson guilty of abusing her domestic and foreign travel perks to the tune of more than R1.6-million, the Mail & Guardian has been told by reliable sources close to the probe.
Public protector Thuli Madonsela is expected to release her damning report into Joemat-Pettersson's lavish hotel spending spree at the end of August or in the first week of September.
The inquiry into the abuse was lodged by the Democratic Alliance following questions in Parliament about her hotel expenses.
This week, the embattled minister submitted her comments and queries to the office of the public protector in response to Madonsela's preliminary findings.
Expenses Joemat-Pettersson incurred include, among others, a month's stay at the Vineyard Hotel and Spa in Cape Town during June and July 2009 at a cost of R134 735, a five-week stay at the Peermont D'Oreal Grande Emperor's Palace in Johannesburg between September 16 and October 21 2009 at a total cost of R289 352 and a month spent at the Pure Toys One CC in Johannesburg during the 2010 Fifa World Cup at a cost of R420 000.
Last year, President Jacob Zuma was forced to fire Sicelo Shiceka, the late minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, after Madonsela found him to have acted unlawfully, of being dishonest with public money and in contravention of the Cabinet's executive ethics code as well as the Constitution.
If the public protector recommends serious action against Joemat-Pettersson, Zuma could act against her.
She is one of Zuma's key allies in his battle to get re-elected as ANC president in Mangaung in the Free State in December. Last month, Joemat-Pettersson donated R800-million from her department to Zuma's controversial Masibambisane rural development initiative. The donation has been described by government officials as her way to curry favour with the president ahead of the report's release.
A senior ANC leader, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the M&G this week that the president had set a precedent by acting against Shiceka, former police commissioner Bheki Cele and former public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde after the public protector found all of them guilty of various transgressions.
"He is caught between a rock and a hard place," said the ANC leader, who supports a campaign to replace Zuma with his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe. "He cannot cherry-pick who he fires or it will undermine confidence in his leadership. However, he might drag his feet a little longer until Mangaung, because it is now close to nominations and firing Joemat-Pettersson will demoralise his forces and boost the morale of the forces of change."
Joemat-Pettersson's spokesperson, Palesa Mokomele, declined to comment about the findings of the public protector's provisional report and referred queries to Madonsela's office.
Madonsela also declined to comment, saying the report was private and confidential at this stage.
However, she confirmed that Joemat-Pettersson had met her deadline on Monday this week to respond to the findings.
Joemat-Pettersson has recently been accused of waging a war against senior staff by hiring, firing and suspending senior management officials, including director general Langa Zitha.
The minister has consistently blamed Zitha for failing to approve the R420-million tender for the provision of tractors to black emerging farmers as part of Zuma's Masibambisane programme. According to sources in the department and the ANC, Joemat-Pettersson had instructed Zitha to implement the president's project, but he refused and raised questions about the programme and its corporate governance.
Masibambisane is also behind the controversial Zumaville, a new town planned near Zuma's Nkandla homestead.
Last week, Joemat-Pettersson's special adviser, Ramotena Mabote, left the department after the minister allegedly sidelined him and refused to answer his calls.
Mabote, who has worked with Joemat-Pettersson since 2010, said he would approach the Public Service Bargaining Council to sue her for constructive dismissal.
A staffer told the M&G this week that Joemat-Pettersson was behaving erratically, leading to paralysis in the department.
"She is worried that Thuli Madonsela's report will bury her," said the staffer. "In the next few weeks the truth will be revealed. She has also come under fire for the Masibambisane programme [for] the allusion that this is a private-public partnership. Companies like Massmart and South African Breweries are not putting money into the programme per se. All they do is offer off-take agreements to buy the produce from its beneficiaries. All the money for the project comes from the government."
On Thursday Mokomele said: "The minister does not engage in departmental matters. She has an acting director general, Sipho Ntombela, who has been [running] the department since the former director general was placed on suspension."
Unions say their hands were tied over project
The agriculture department this week said it had met farmers' unions, including AgriSA and the National African Farmers' Association of South Africa, and all had agreed to the Masibambisane agricultural project. Zumaville, the new town being built near President Jacob Zuma's homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, is one of its projects.
"All parties pledged their unreserved support for this initiative," read a departmental statement after the meeting.
That would have been an astonishing consensus, given that Masibambisane is apparently spending government money without oversight or disclosing financials and has been described as a campaign tool for Zuma, and those who were at the meeting said it was not true. "Unreserved? That's a strong word," said one participant. "We all support the initiative but we have reservations about the way Masibambisane interacts with the department and about its corporate governance."
"Our hand was forced," said a key union player at the meeting. "We had no choice because you cannot bite the hand that feeds you … The programme appears biased towards Nkandla."
At least one of the unions believes now-suspended agriculture director general Langa Zitha was removed to allow easier access to the departments coffers, and that Masibambisane was a key part of that plan. Another grouping said it was worried that political manoeuvring was behind Masibambisane.
Palesa Mokomele, spokesperson for the ministry, said allegations of plans to misuse departmental funds were malicious and untrue and the department stood by its version of the meeting.
"It is unfortunate that these farm unions spoke in support of the initiative in the meeting and later changed their mind," Mokomele said. – Phillip de Wet & Charles Molele