/ 22 September 2009

‘Black caucus’ pushed DG out

A ‘black caucus” in the Department of Water Affairs played a critical role in the downfall of its director general, Pam Yako, departmental sources have told the Mail & Guardian. This week the water affairs minister announced that the department had received an unqualified audit for 2008/9, its first in four years.

Yako took over as director general in February last year and was suspended on July 23 following allegations of financial irregularity, maladministration and mismanagement. But no formal charges have been put to her.

Several sources in the department, both sympathetic and unsympathetic to Yako, confirmed the existence of a group of powerful senior officials in the department, calling themselves the ‘black caucus”, who had the ear of Buyelwa Sonjica, the water affairs minister. According to four departmental sources, the group includes chief directors and the department’s Kwazulu- Natal head, Vusi Kubheka.

They are said to have been antagonised by both her harsh management style and her efforts to clean up the department’s act, which included an investigation into overspending of R320-million. ‘She launched a clean-up campaign that stepped on some people’s toes,” said a sympathetic source. Yako declined to comment.

Kubheka scoffed at the idea of a black caucus, saying he was not aware that it existed. Departmental spokesperson Mava Scott also denied its existence.

The caucus is understood to have first raised its unhappiness about Yako in a dossier handed last year to the former minister, Lindiwe Hendricks. This claimed, among other things, that Yako gave money to the Congress of the People (Cope) via a car-hire tender; and that she made an R18-million payment to the Rand Water Board twice.

A senior department source told the M&G that Hendricks had investigated these allegations and dismissed them. Scott confirmed that Hendricks was in possession of information linking Yako to alleged financial mismanagement.

On July 24 this year the same group presented Hendricks’s successor, Sonjica, with further allegations. These included claims that she had extended an IT contract with Arivia.kom for R344-million instead of awarding a new contract to a more appropriate company; hired a business associate, Dr Crispian ‘Chippy” Olver, without following procedures and interfered in the award of a R120-million travel management contract by changing the panel that had recommended a different company.

They also accused her of hosting departmental meetings at exclusive hotels and spending millions on projects outside the department’s core functions.

Sonjica had put Yako on ‘special leave” pending an investigation by the Public Service Department, said Scott. He declined to comment on the specific charges the director general faced, saying they were sub judice.

Yako is not allowed to set foot in the department’s premises. This week Sonjica released a statement praising the department for the audit opinion, while conspicuously omitting to mention Yako’s role.

In previous years the auditor general, Terence Nombembe, has declined to offer an opinion on the department’s financial statements. In his latest report Nombembe noted that ‘the department’s financial statements presented fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of the department, its financial performance and cash flows, in accordance with accepted accounting practices”.

In addition Nombembe found that the department had complied with most of the requirements of the Public Finance Management Act and that the executive management had exercised adequate internal financial controls.

Sources sympathetic to Yako said she was perplexed that no official charges had been presented to her, while other departmental sources said that if an investigation was taking place ‘it was being done deep underground”. They said Yako was an outsider in the department when she was appointed and her tough management style had not won her friends.

Some said she had ‘tried to change things too fast” in a campaign to rid the department of maladministration and financial irregularities. ‘There were definitely top officials who did not like her because her management style was too harsh. I agree with them,” a consultant in the department told the M&G.