/ 12 March 2015

Phosa: What the butler ‘heard’

Public wrangle: ANC Mathews Phosa has accused his former butler of theft and fraud. Photo: Oupa Nkosi
Public wrangle: ANC Mathews Phosa has accused his former butler of theft and fraud. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

ANC veteran Mathews Phosa is locked in an ugly public wrangle with his former butler, who accuses him of using theft and fraud charges to “silence” him because he has information that could damage the politician’s reputation.

Phosa has hit back by branding Jan Venter (39) “a liar and a thief” and accusing him of being a “willing puppet” in the hands of other politicians.

Venter, of Nelspruit, faces charges of theft and fraud in connection with his alleged embezzlement of R53?000 belonging to the former ANC treasurer and Mpumalanga premier.

But Venter says the charges were laid after Phosa’s personal secretary, Debbie Burnett, ordered him to return all personal documents in his possession, including pictures of the Phosa family, when he resigned in May last year.

The politician did not take kindly to his refusal to surrender the information and headed straight to the police station, Venter claimed.

He said that he had not signed a confidentiality clause and that all this information was stored on his personal laptop. He claimed that Phosa has influenced the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to fabricate the case, despite having no evidence.

He told amaBhungane: “It was not like I was going to sell stories to the media; it wouldn’t have been wise for me to speak badly about my former employer. Little did I know that this would be the start of a never-ending nightmare.”

Venter first appeared on theft and fraud charges in the Hazyview magistrate’s court in September last year. The case has since been postponed on several occasions.

“A liar and a thief”
Reacting, Phosa said that charges against his former employee were exclusively based on direct evidence of theft, adding that Venter “is a liar and a thief”.

NPA spokesperson Velekhaya Mgobhozi hotly denied the laying of charges was influenced in any way by political considerations or Phosa as an individual. Mgobhozi said Venter had failed to convince the provincial director of public prosecutions to withdraw the case against him.

At the heart of the row are Venter’s claims, reported at the weekend, that he saw Phosa writing a document accusing Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza of being an apartheid-era spy.

The four-page, badly written report with no official letterhead or signature, alleges that Mabuza was an apartheid security agent, code-named PN485, between 1985 and 1993.

The report alleges Mabuza’s missions included attending meetings of political movements such as the then banned ANC, the Azanian Students Convention, the National Education Union of South Africa and the United Democratic Front, and reporting back to his two security police handlers.

According to the report, Mabuza also had high-level contact with various ANC leaders in exile.

In January this year Mabuza called a press conference to respond to the allegations, claiming that they were a bid to unseat him as premier.

Phosa has acknowledged handing the “spy” report to the ANC leadership, but says that he received it anonymously.

Mabuza has laid a charge of criminal defamation against Phosa and is suing him for R10-million – although Phosa says he has never received a summons.

Police investigation
Venter’s claim that he overheard the discussion about the spy document is contained in an affidavit signed by the acting deputy police commissioner of North West, Major General Jacob Tsumane, who was asked by national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega to probe Mabuza’s complaint.

Police spokesperson Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale said there was nothing untoward about Tsumane investigating Mabuza’s complaint. “There was a case registered at Nelspruit by the complainant [Mabuza] … There are many investigations which have been conducted in this manner in the past and currently.”

Makgale said the investigation was progressing well, but did not elaborate.

The relationship between Mabuza and Phosa, both influential figures in Mpumalanga, has been strained for some time.

In January Mabuza’s supporters were accused of orchestrating a violent disruption of a South African Communist Party memorial lecture at which Phosa was the keynote speaker.

In another highly publicised incident three years ago, Mpumalanga members of the ANC Youth League, who backed Mabuza, accused Phosa and ANC provincial executive committee members Fish Mahlalela and Lassy Chiwayo of funding service delivery protests to unseat Mabuza as premier.

A subsequent police investigation found no substance to the allegations.

At the 2012 Mangaung conference of the ANC, Mabuza was a prominent backer of Jacob Zuma for the ANC presidency, whereas Phosa supported former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe.

Paying the lawyers
Elaborating on his battle with Phosa, Venter said he was not involved in politics and merely wanted to do what was right. The former butler questioned why Phosa had never called him to discuss the missing funds, but had instead paid his full salary and leave pay after he resigned.

Phosa responded that he laid the complaint only after discovering that the money was missing, weeks after Venter had quit.

Venter agreed that the R53 000 was deposited in his account in numerous small amounts, but claimed Burnett deposited the money on Phosa’s instructions.

He added: “Every month an audit is done on [Phosa’s] finances and not once was I told to pay back anything. Instead, I was told that since I used my own money to cover the expenses of Mathews Phosa and Associates, there was no need to do this.

“So Phosa, a billionaire, would rather pay lawyers instead of sorting this out,” Venter said.

He claimed that he had been intimidated by the politician’s head of security, Pieter van Zyl, against whom he had opened two criminal cases.

“My life is in danger; I’ve been told to move to another city and the cases will go away,” said Venter. “Van Zyl verbally threatened me and I opened a case. I also opened a case when my car was shot at.”

He said a Ford Ranger had drawn up beside his vehicle in the main street of Hazyview, and two shots were fired. He did not recognise the occupants of the other car and his vehicle was not hit.

Van Zyl strongly denied threatening or intimidating Venter, saying he did not have time to entertain Venter’s stories. “He lives in his own little world where he makes up stuff,” he said.

Mgobhozi confirmed that Venter had laid charges but would not comment further.

“Mabuza was a spy”
In Venter’s affidavit, which amaBhungane has seen, he states that he was on duty in March last year when he heard Phosa discussing the plot to discredit Mabuza with a business partner.

“Phosa asked me to fetch blank papers. But before he actually called me, he indicated that he would draft a report and send it to Luthuli House to prove that Mabuza is indeed a spy,” the statement says. “While Mr Phosa was scribbling … mention was made of Mabuza’s name, that he was once a spy working for the old order.”

Phosa denied these claims, but appeared to know the affidavit’s contents. “Venter lied under oath,” he said. “His affidavit is perjury and I will open a criminal case against him.”

Phosa added that Venter was “facing criminal and civil charges for money theft of money from me, this is perjury in a classical sense”.

Venter said was shocked to hear that his former boss had seen his affidavit.

“It goes to show how well connected Phosa is. My affidavit was supposed to be private, as this is an ongoing investigation. Everything I said in that affidavit is what I saw and heard.”

Venter worked as a part-time and later full-time house manager for Phosa for about 10 months. He said his duties included welcoming guests, arranging parties, booking flights and accommodation and “ensuring the wellbeing of everyone in the house”.

Soured relationship
“We [Venter and Phosa] had a good relationship; he is someone I admired. We talked many times a day, as I needed to update him on the renovations of his house in Hazyview,” said Venter, who supplied a copy of an SMS between him and Phosa to prove the warmth of their former bond.

He said the relationship soured after he asked for compassionate leave to travel to Pretoria to visit his dying father. When Phosa refused, he claimed, he decided to resign.

Responding, Phosa said: “I approved his first request for leave. He came back a week later with another request, and I refused.

“He [Venter] then resigned and offered to serve out his notice, but then said he must leave immediately – so I fired him,” Phosa said.

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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.