Former City Press editor Vusi Mona, whose appointment as acting communications head in the presidency was announced this week, is mired in a bribery scandal playing out in an Mpumalanga court.
Mona is controversial for publishing spying allegations against former national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka and for allegedly breaking the off-the-record rule to reveal details of a briefing by Ngcuka regarding then-deputy president Jacob Zuma.
Mona’s actions against Ngcuka may have recommended him to his new boss, but his appointment while the Mpumalanga matter remains unresolved flies in the face of Zuma’s recurrent anti-corruption rhetoric. Mona is implicated in the payment of substantial kickbacks to Stanley Soko, then-director general of Mpumalanga, and Ernest Khoza, then-chief executive of the Mpumalanga Economic Empowerment Corporation, six years ago.
The alleged payments followed the provincial government’s 2003 award of a R32-million public relations contract to a consortium in which Mona had an interest. Soko and Khoza are currently on trial in the Nelspruit Regional Court. They have pleaded not guilty to charges including corruption and fraud.
Although Mona has not been charged, his alleged role in the bribery scheme has been detailed in the charge sheet against Soko and Khoza and in testimony by Moss Mashamaite, Mona’s partner in the public relations venture.
The presidency this week said that Mona denied he was ‘part of any bribery or chain of events leading to the alleged bribery”.
Mona’s rise in journalism was meteoric. The rookie founding editor of Mail & Guardian sister publication the Teacher in 1996, he was appointed City Press editor in 2000.
He first courted controversy after Ngcuka briefed editors in July 2003 about criminal investigations into Zuma and Mac Maharaj, allegedly saying he would convict Zuma ‘in the court of public opinion”. Mona circulated details although the briefing was allegedly off the record.
Six weeks later Mona published a story, later the subject of the Hefer Commission of Inquiry, saying Ngcuka had probably been an apartheid spy. The story was brought to City Press by then-reporter Ranjeni Munusamy, whose own publication, the Sunday Times, had refused to run it.
The Hefer commission later trashed the story and Mona, saying in its final report that Mona ‘was forced to make one damning concession after the other” and that ‘his credibility had been reduced to nil”.
Mona left City Press in late 2003 following a conflict-of-interest investigation by his employer, Media24, into his undeclared participation in the Rainbow Kwanda Communications consortium, which won the Mpumalanga PR contract.
Although Mona’s departure from City Press attracted much publicity, his role in the sequel — the alleged kickbacks paid on the Mpumalanga contract — has not.
According to the charge sheet against Soko and Khoza, Mashamaite registered Zan Moss Technologies in 2001. Mona ‘requested to join” the company, which traded as Rainbow Communications. Mona was not formally registered as a member, but had a ‘profit share of 50%”.
In January 2003 the Mpumalanga government issued a tender for PR services. ‘Mashamaite and Mona formed a consortium of three companies”, Rainbow Kwanda Communications, to bid.
In June ‘Mashamaite was invited to a meeting at the home of Accused 1 [Khoza]. Upon arrival he found Mona already there and Accused 2 [Soko] joined them later. [Soko] was presented as the person without whom they wouldn’t have been able to secure the contract.
‘In this meeting [Khoza] informed Mashamaite and Mona that he and [Soto] had to be rewarded for the key roles they played in securing the contract … They wanted R1-million each — The parties then all agreed thereto.”
The charge sheet details numerous alleged payments, sometimes in cash and sometimes through a front person, to Soko and Khoza between August 2003 and April 2004. The payments totalled roughly R1-million.
Although Mashamaite — who has confessed and is a key prosecution witness — physically made the payments, the charge sheet claims Mona remained involved.
At one stage Mona allegedly ‘put pressure on Mashamaite to pay the bribe money”. At another ‘Mona informed Mashamaite that [Soko] wanted to be paid R100 000 per month. Mashamaite agreed with Mona on R65 000.”
After Mona left City Press, the charge sheet states he ‘started taking more of an interest in the day-to-day running of the business. After they realised the losses they were incurring were because of the fact that they were paying these amounts to the accused they took a decision in principle to cease further payments.”
The contract was terminated during the second half of 2004.
Presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya defended Mona’s appointment this week, saying: ‘There are no charges against Mr Mona. He is not part of the case currently running, either as a witness or an accused.
‘The state said in court as matter of record that it has no intention to call Mr Mona as a witness. The defence has also said the same. If he was connected to this matter he would be a witness or an accused —
‘Mr Mona did not co-own the said company at the time it concluded a contract with the Mpumalanga government. He denies he was part of any bribery or chain of events leading to the alleged bribery.”
Meanwhile, controversial former Sunday Times journalist Munusamy has been appointed chief of communications in Blade Nzimande’s new department of higher education and training.
Munusamy shot to fame, or notoriety, six years ago when she handed the Ngcuka spy story to Mona at City Press after her editor at the Sunday Times, Mthatha Tsedu, refused to publish it.
Munusamy subsequently lost her job at the Sunday Times.
Munusamy said this week her new job primarily entailed helping the department to draw up a communication strategy.
‘The process of splitting departments [higher education from basic education] is still going on and while that is happening we need to keep them going,” she said.
Munusamy said that when the process of splitting the departments was finished all communication posts, including hers, would be advertised.
Staff in the department, however, are reported to be unimpressed with Munusamy’s appointment.
Her role in Zuma’s presidential campaign, among other things, has been questioned.
Said Munusamy: ‘I don’t have a problem dealing with journalists. I am also a trained journalist and all this time I have been involved in work that involves dealing with journalists. However, my current job does not entail working with the journalists. The department has appointed an official spokesperson to deal with the media.”