Moeletsi Mbeki is suing three employees he retrenched from his think-tank Forum for Public Dialogue (FPD) for R1-million each.
Mbeki is accusing the three, Brutus Malada, Nompumelelo Sibalukhulu and Ntokozo Koba, of breach of contract for sharing information about the forum with this newspaper. The former employees are challenging Mbeki and the forum in the Labour Court and the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), claiming that their retrenchment is simply unfair dismissal.
This week, Mbeki, through his lawyers, tried unsuccessfully to convince the former employees to sign a media statement that the labour dispute had been settled. The statement would have said the employees had withdrawn from the CCMA battle and had accepted a severance package.
The statement was also written in a way that would explain that the forum had lost its main financial sponsor in February and that discussions about cost-cutting alternatives had failed to reach an agreement on reduced salaries and contractual commitments.
The forum informed the employees about retrenchments in the first week of February and mentioned that they could lose their jobs by the end of that month.
Mbeki, through his lawyer Gideon van den Berg of GvdB Inc, has now sent the three letters informing them of his decision to sue them for a R1-million each.
"Your clients are in breach of the contract with our client as the minutes of the board meeting were disclosed to the M&G newspaper," reads the letter of demand, which adds that Mbeki was "severely prejudiced" by the apparent breach of contract.
Mbeki is demanding written confirmation from the former employees, before close of business on March 22, that no further information of any nature regarding Mbeki would be disclosed to the media or any third party, failing which Mbeki would apply for an urgent application interdicting them from disclosing any further information.
He is also demanding R1-million from each former employee for "damages suffered" by Mbeki, to be paid within seven days from March 18, the day that the former employees received the letter of demand.
The employees' lawyer, Chris Mamathuntsha, earlier in the week rejected the forum's offer for the former employees to sign a media statement saying they had withdrawn all legal challenges.
"Our clients will be approaching the court to seek [it] to order the forum to pay them the rest of the remainder of the [two-year fixed] contract which they have with the forum," said Mamathuntsha.
Mamathuntsha said the former employees were willing to consider a six-month salary payment in settlement of the labour matter.
"Our clients will proceed with all actions, CCMA and Labour Court applications, should we not receive a satisfactory response by 12pm on March 20," he said.
The forum paid the three employees their February salaries last month after they approached the Labour Court. The company paid the employees three weeks' work plus one week severance pay.
The forum then proposed a settlement, which is almost twice the monthly salary for each employee, which the three rejected.
Mamathuntsha was not immediately available for comment and Mbeki did not respond to attempts to contact him.
The M&G previously reported that the forum's main funder pulled out because of a spat between its former chief executive Prince Mashele and Mbeki. A source said the donor withdrew "mainly because of issues of governance, particularly [regarding] the [suppressed] Cosatu [shop stewards] study".
The not-for-profit organisation had been aware of its financial problems since November.
Records of a November 21 board meeting show that Mashele briefed the board about the forum's rapidly emptying coffers.
"I'm concerned about the state of finance. It's not looking good," Mashele told the board.
At the meeting, the company was not even sure it would have enough money to pay December salaries. Mashele at that time described the situation as "a crisis".
"We don't have money to pay salaries for December. We need to raise something urgently in order to meet our commitments," he said.
The forum had been living a hand-to-mouth existence for months, according to meeting records.
One board member who attended the November meeting warned his colleagues that the forum would be "trading recklessly" if it allowed employees to continue working while knowing there was no money to pay their salaries.
"We could get into legal trouble if an employee turns around and decides to sue because we didn't pay him in December when we knew that we couldn't pay him and we had him working. We are exposed," the board member said.
The forum's letters to employees said it had no alternative to possible retrenchments "due to the fact that we have a cash-flow challenge that can be overcome only with additional donations being secured".
"Some positions may become redundant for the foreseeable future but, since the employer may not be able to carry other existing administrative and support positions, all employees may be affected," the letters read.