Home Affairs Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize has accused the department’s director general, Mkuseli Apleni, of insubordination, saying he failed to provide her with a status report about a legal row with the Oppenheimer family’s company Fireblade.
Fireblade has been in a battle with the department of home affairs after former minister Malusi Gigaba rejected its application to run a customs and immigration service at its seven-star terminal at OR Tambo International Airport.
It wants the decision by Gigaba, who has since been appointed finance minister, to be reviewed. Fireblade claims the department had initially approved the application and that the decision was reversed after pressure from the Gupta family.
Apleni’s alleged insubordination has emerged as one of the key reasons used by Mkhize to put Apleni on precautionary suspension this week; Mkhize needed to get President Jacob Zuma’s permission for an out-of-court negotiated settlement with Fireblade.
Apleni said he would file an urgent application to challenge the suspension, which he has described as unlawful and irrational. He will argue that only the president, and not Mkhize, has the powers to suspend the director general.
Mkhize appears to have taken a reconciliatory approach to the Fireblade litigation, with government insiders saying she satisfied herself that the department had initially approved the application for the Fireblade airport terminal to be an exclusive international port entry.
“She does not understand why the department suddenly changed its decision after it gave the Oppenheimer family specifications for the private terminal,” said a government official, who asked to remain anonymous. Gigaba previously denied having approved the application, saying that doing so would be tantamount to using public resources for private purposes.
In documents the Mail & Guardian has seen, Nicky Oppenheimer implied that Mkhize contradicted Gigaba’s argument that Fireblade was for the exclusive use of the family. “You mentioned one reason given, namely that the facility was for the exclusive use of the Oppenheimer family and said that following your visit to Fireblade you now appreciated that this was factually incorrect,” said Oppenheimer in a letter to Mkhize in June.
In her notice of intention to place Apleni on precautionary suspension, seen by the M&G, Mkhize raises concerns about Apleni’s conduct on the Fireblade matter, saying it unfairly and falsely projected her “as an incompetent minister” in the eyes of the president.
“On the 28th of July 2017, I verbally instructed you to provide me with a status quo report in the form of a Cabinet memo regarding the Fireblade litigation process in order to brief the president on a very sensitive matter that had far-reaching reputational consequences for the government.
“The guidance of the president was required relating to an out-of-court negotiated settlement. Despite having indicated to you the urgency of the matter, you deliberately brought the Cabinet memo on the last day of the sitting of the court,” said Mkhize.
Judgment in the Fireblade matter has been reserved.
Government sources told the M&G that Mkhize was also not happy with Apleni’s lack of transparency about the naturalisation of citizenship for members of the Gupta family.
Yet publicly Mkhize has defended the decision taken under Gigaba’s leadership, saying it was based on the fact that the Guptas invested in the country.
Other charges in the notice of intention to suspend Apleni include:
- Failure to provide effective leadership during the recent negotiation with unions, which has led to the collapse of the talks between workers and government as employers;
- That he “dismally failed to show diligence and urgency” in resolving several legal disputes between the department and third parties;
- Failure to prioritise filling critical posts in the ministry; and
- Failure to arrange regular meetings between the minister, senior officials and the director general to keep the minister abreast of government’s political programmes.
In his written representation to Mkhize, Apleni said he read the allegations against him with a heavy heart because he had done nothing wrong to warrant the type of treatment he received from the minister.
He said he had a “demonstrable track record of a good working relationship with all ministers”, from Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Naledi Pandor to Gigaba.
“I have never been accused of misconduct or poor work performance in my time in government administration and this department in particular. It is inconceivable that I could have done wrong to you in a space of a mere five months since your deployment to this department with the breakdown of trust as you intimated in your letter,” he wrote.
Apleni’s legal team will challenge the charges against him.
A government official close to Apleni said the director general was confident he had a strong case to get the minister to reverse her decision.
Director general in hot spot over R141m claim from home affairs
Shortly before he was suddenly suspended, home affairs director general Mkuseli Apleni was accused of involving his minister in a nasty legal fight without her knowledge — while someone in her office kept up covert communications with a group claiming R141-million from the government.
Less than a week after Apleni angrily denied this accusation, Home Affairs Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize served Apleni with suspension papers and announced the action publicly, without giving reasons for her action.
Although there is no evidence that the suspension is related to the legal battle, the latter points to serious differences between Apleni and those supposedly close to Mkhize.
For the past seven years Apleni has been central to fending off a claim by a former supplier of bandwidth to the home affairs department, Double Ring, for what now amounts to R141-million. Since 2009 that company has launched various legal attempts to claim the money — as well as trying other means.
Double Ring tried “to resolve the matter through political channels, either directly with the then-minister [of home affairs] or at one stage even trying to approach the president of the Republic of South Africa in order to avoid continuing with the litigation”, Apleni wrote in an affidavit earlier this month.
Double Ring has since placed itself into voluntary liquidation, leaving its liquidators to claim the money they insist the department of home affairs still owes.
In early September, Apleni rushed to court to prevent the liquidators from enforcing subpoenas calling him, Mkhize and former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba to provide evidence at formal liquidation proceedings. He cited Mkhize as the first applicant.
But the liquidators’ “investigator” had established that “the minister is unaware of the urgent application and apparently did not instruct [the department of home affairs] or its attorneys to launch these proceedings”, they said in a replying affidavit.
As proof, the liquidators attached what they said was a transcript of an “electronic communication obtained from a representative” of Mkhize.
The transcript does not identify the sender or recipient. It consists of just two lines: “No she has not given him any authority at all” and “We are dealing with it now but we are looking for the document we think he is hiding it from her.”
The liquidators also accused Apleni of hiding documents crucial to their R141-million claim and said he was “conveniently and without remorse” trying to mislead the court.
Apleni responded angrily in turn, dismissing what he called “scurrilous and defamatory allegations” about himself, and insisting Mkhize’s legal adviser had signed off on his actions. “I am simply doing my duty to protect the fiscus,” Apleni told the court.
He did not deal with the implication that someone in Mkhize’s office was dealing with the liquidators outside of the legal process. — Phillip de Wet