'Lease rip-off': Envoy carpeted
South Africa’s former high commissioner to Ghana stands accused of fleecing the government of more than a million rands in rent and the cost of decorating her privately owned home in Accra.
Sources allege that, in 2013, Jeanette Ndhlovu bought a luxurious apartment in the Ghanaian capital, decorated it with funds from state coffers and concluded a two-year lease deal with the South African government to house a home affairs official there.
Confidential government documents seen by amaBhungane raise major questions about the leasing of the apartment.
In an interview this week, Ndhlovu claimed that she owned a different unit in the same complex and thus never received rent from the government.
“I have never unduly benefited by accepting any money from Dirco [the department of international relations and co-operation],” she said.
Asked why she, rather than the authorised corporate service manager, signed two vouchers approving the payment of R1.1-million in advance rental on the property, she said there was no corporate service manager at the high commission at the time.
Accommodation paid for
But two well-placed sources disputed this. They also insisted that the department paid rent on an apartment that belonged to her, saying that Ndhlovu put “severe pressure” on the home affairs official to move in.
A confidential letter sent by the department’s head office in Pretoria on August 1 last year also indicates that the accommodation of the home affairs official was deeply flawed.
In it, the international affairs department’s forensic auditing director, Motshabi Modukanele, asked Ndhlovu to explain why her signature appears on the authorisation for the rental payments.
Modukanele also asked:
- Her to provide proof that she had sought approval from the department’s chief financial officer for the payment;
- Whether she obtained home affairs’ approval for the conclusion of the lease;
- Why she ignored home affairs’ instruction that its official should be put up in a hotel;
- Whether she consulted the international property management unit at head office before concluding the lease; and
- Whether she had referred the lease agreement to international affairs’ legal section for an opinion.
She confirmed that she had not answered Modukanele’s questions, as they were “unfair” and intended to “undermine” her.
Pressed by amaBhungane for answers, Ndhlovu would only say that, as international affairs had paid the R1.1-million in rent, the payment must have been authorised.
“I sent them [head office] every document,” she said.
“In my possession I have a letter that was later, after a second inquiry acquired, giving me authorisation to accommodate the relief official in a self-catering unit.
The hotel she lived in was too expensive, and the authorities agreed.
“Someone has obviously made a terrible mistake, and I am the fall guy.”
She said a senior international affairs official, whom she named, “is trying to undermine my leadership. His intentions are malicious.”
AmaBunghane understands that it was this official who, in July last year, sent an audit team to investigate complaints made about Ndhlovu.
According to her, he authorised the rental payments.
The latest revelation follows a string of allegations made about Ndhlovu, a former Umkhonto weSizwe recruiter and ANC exile leader in the United States, which may have cumulatively cost the government up to R14-million.
Following the internal audit investigation, Ndhlovu was served with a charge sheet relating to “irregular expenditure” during her tenure as high commissioner since 2010.
A source in international affairs’ finance department said she had been summoned to appear before a disciplinary inquiry in Pretoria next week, at which 20 witnesses were expected to testify.
Confirming the hearing, Ndhlovu said the inquiry was “based on half facts” and “makes no sense”.
Modukanele’s letter raised 16 issues about the apparent mismanagement, misappropriation of funds, fruitless and wasteful expenditure and flouting of department head office rules and instructions.
The key concern was a lease deal on a new chancery building, personally signed by Ndhlovu, which was allegedly never authorised.
In his letter, Modukanele names the landlord as “Mike Twum Barimah”, stating that he received $720 000 in part payment for the new chancery building for the period between May 1 2013 and April 30 2015.
The building was never occupied.
Ndhlovu said this was because head office had instructed her not to move.
Two independent sources said that, when her four-year stint as high commissioner ended in June, Ndhlovu initially refused to return to South Africa. They said that she had grudgingly complied only when the department stopped her allowance for July and August and threatened her with an additional charge of insubordination.
Sources close to her said that she had not packed her belongings before returning to South Africa “in a ploy to return to and stay in Ghana”.
One said: “She would often tell us at staff meetings that here, in Ghana, she holds the power. ‘Here, I am like Zuma,’ she would say. ‘Here, I am the president’.?”
The St Michael’s Court estate where Ndhlovu bought an apartment is in the suburb of North Ridge, described as one of Accra’s “superior locations”.
One of eight luxurious “architect-designed homes” going for $550?000 each, it is described by the Accra-based estate agent, Fairview Properties, as a “contemporary masterpiece … set in a highly desirable location”.
In a leaked letter of authority dated December 4 2013, Ndhlovu wrote to Fairview Properties: “I hereby confirm that per our discussions both face to face, by telephone and meetings with officials of Stanbic Bank Ghana, I have contracted a mortgage loan of $400 000 to pay for the outstanding balance of the property number 4 situated at St Michael’s Court, 7th Avenue [North] Ridge – Accra, purchased from you at an offer price of $550 000. An initial payment of $150?000 has been made to you.”
The letter indicates that she was expecting the property to be transferred into her name by the end of January 2013.
On January 17 2013 and April 22 2013, she signed two expenditure vouchers for two years’ rental on a St Michael’s apartment, totalling R1.1-million. She installed new furniture and took occupation in the first month that rental was paid.
Ndhlovu told amaBhungane that her apartment was number four St Michael’s Court, and the home affairs relief officer was supposed to have been accommodated in number two.
Relying on data from the special audit, Modukanele also alleges that Ndhlovu bought coffee tables, curtains, aluminium blinds and prepaid electricity for the apartment, as well as employing a cleaner without the department’s authority.
According to a high commission source, Ndhlovu also arranged the transportation of her personal furniture from South Africa. “It was used to furnish her apartment,” the source said.
“After the home affairs relief officer refused to move in, her plan was to house the new defence attaché, who joined the mission at the beginning of 2014.”
But the attaché also declined occupation, the source said.
Modukanele’s letter further notes that the lease agreement and furniture acquisitions were concluded despite home affairs’s instruction that its official, who was providing temporary relief, should be accommodated in a hotel.
Ndhlovu disputed the sources’ claims that the furniture was used in her own home. “My detractors are deeply biased against me. As high commissioner, I had the right to buy anything the chancery needs with a value of under $10?000.
“Unit number two, where the relief officer was staying, was furnished with Dirco’s property. I made a judgement call, thinking that the next relief official would also be able to take occupation there.”
Ndhlovu also confirmed that she had put pressure on the relief officer to “occupy unit number two because I was instructed to find her alternative accommodation”.
Three independent sources told amaBhungane that a special South African government delegation, probably comprising the department’s chief financial officer; the deputy director general, Africa bilateral; the chief director, property and facilities management; and the chief director West Africa would visit Ghana shortly in a bid “to salvage South Africa’s reputation and recover alleged fruitless and wasteful expenditure” during Ndhlovu’s tenure.
The South African mission is understood to have remained in the original building, on which no rent has been paid since January last year. One source said the accumulated rent amounted to about R5-million.
“No due process with regard to safety was ever followed,” a source who worked at the chancery at the time told amaBhungane. “Regulations require that any new building must be vetted by South Africa’s security services. This was never done.”
The source also said that the new building was wholly unsuited to housing the mission.
“The high commissioner signed a deal for 10 self-catering apartments in a block of flats, each with its own kitchen and bathroom. It would take millions to convert this into a suitable space.”
Ndhlovu said the original chancery building was old and dilapidated, unlike the new building.
In her letter to Ndhlovu, Modukanele asks why the high commissioner’s signature appeared on the payment voucher for the rent of the new chancery building rather than that of the corporate service manager. She further notes that this deal exceeded the chancery’s budget by almost R4-million.
Modukanele also asked whether the relevant officials were ever notified and proper tender procedures were followed.
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.