'Sacrificial lamb' fights back

Acting public works director general Sam Vukela has accused the department’s minister, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, of acting in bad faith following her decision to put him on special leave pending an internal investigation into alleged tender irregularities amounting to more than R3-billion.

In a surprise move this week the minister, who public protector Thuli Madonsela found guilty of acting unlawfully and in violation of the Constitution after she put pressure on officials to sign the controversial R500-million police building lease, announced her intention to approach the courts to nullify the deal. She said she had also decided to place Vukela on special leave.

Vukela, who has vowed to challenge Mahlangu-Nkabinde’s decision, believes he is being forced to take the fall for her. His legal ­representative, Themba Langa, confirmed his client’s intention to challenge the decision to place him on special leave.

Langa told the Mail & Guardian that Mahlangu-Nkabinde had informed Vukela on Tuesday that she had decided to relieve him of his duties as acting director general because she wanted him to focus on developing responses to the public protector’s report. That, Langa said, was after the department had agreed internally to accept Madonsela’s findings and put in place corrective measures—a process that was supposed to have been led by Vukela.

Langa said his client was shocked when the minister later told him that she was placing him on special leave.

“Why did she mislead him? First she said she wanted him to focus on ... corrective measures on the public protector’s report and now she says he must be put on special leave because he is going to be investigated. This does not make sense. The only reason he is being put on special leave is that he has been made a sacrificial lamb,” said Langa.

A departmental official close to Vukela told the M&G that his main concern was that the minister’s decision implied that he was responsible for the alleged irregularities in the department.

“What [the minister] said about the R3-billion irregularities is a general statement. There may be people who think that he [Vukela] is involved. He does not want to be compelled to be on special leave,” said the official.

Langa said Vukela would demand answers from the minister about her decision because he was not under any investigation.

“The Special Investigating Unit, which has been tasked to do an integrity analysis in the department of public works, has nothing to do with Vukela,” said Langa. He said it would be unfair for Mahlangu-Nkabinde to blame Vukela for the auditor general’s report, which issued a disclaimer on the basis of poor financial control.

“The department was using a lot of cash. The finding was limited only to financial controls,” said Langa.

Madonsela told e.tv news this week that she found it strange that Mahlangu-Nkabinde was playing the victim instead of taking responsibility.

Mahlangu-Nkabinde has been widely accused by opposition parties and trade union federation Cosatu of using diversionary tactics. Cosatu said that, although it welcomed her new-found enthusiasm for fighting corruption, it strongly believed that she had to account for the corruption-ridden lease agreements and provide answers about why she had defied legal advice and forced the reinstatement of the leases.

“The minister must also account on her failure to cooperate with the public protector’s investigation into the matter,” said Phindile Kunene, editor of Cosatu’s Shopsteward magazine.

“Cosatu considers this a serious indictment on our Constitution, as the public protector has a constitutional expression as one of the chapter nine institutions supporting our constitutional democracy. We thus find minister Mahlangu-Nkabinde’s newly found energy as a champion against corruption highly suspicious and hollow. The minister’s court antics are nothing but a belated attempt at self-cleansing.”

Cosatu said it expected President Jacob Zuma to “do the right thing” by following Madonsela’s recommendation that he take action against Mahlangu-Nkabinde.

Zuma came under sharp criticism in Parliament last week for failing to reprimand Mahlangu-Nkabinde and police commissioner General Bheki Cele after Madonsela found them both to have acted improperly in awarding leases worth R1.8-billion for police office buildings.

The department did not respond to questions put to it.

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004. Read more from Matuma Letsoalo

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