‘Muthambi wanted me out’ — Phumla Williams

Former communications minister Faith Muthambi “effectively” made Phumla Williams redundant when she withdrew the majority of her functions at the government communication and information systems (GCIS), Williams told the Zondo commission on state capture on Monday.

The acting head of GCIS’s testimony before the commission — headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo — detailed the events following the termination of Themba Maseko as director general of GCIS. Advocate Kate Hofmeyr, who led Williams’ testimony, asked Williams to recount how the institution was “denuded of its efficiency” during this period.

Maseko was fired in early 2011 and replaced by self-proclaimed Zuma loyalist Mzwanele Manyi after Maseko allegedly refused to comply with Ajay Gupta’s demands to use the GCIS’s R600-million media buying budget to buy advertising in Gupta-owned The New Age (TNA) newspaper.

Under Manyi’s leadership, tender processing was to be signed off by him and not the bid adjudication committee. Manyi also demanded that the media buying division report directly to him, Williams said.

Williams was serving as deputy director general of GCIS at the time. Much of her testimony on Friday was spent recounting the alleged bullying she experienced under the leadership of then Communications Minister Faith Muthambi.

When Muthambi’s ministry took over responsibility of GCIS, Williams had been shortlisted to take over as the permanent head of the department. But Williams was subsequently notified that interviews for the position had been cancelled indefinitely.

She said this was connected to a series of complaints made against Williams by Muthambi, including a complaint that Williams had failed to address Muthambi as “Honourable” in official correspondence.

Williams recounted how tensions between herself and Muthambi came to a head when her position as acting GCIS director general was withdrawn. Williams was replaced by Donald Liphoko, who had been brought into GCIS by Manyi.

READ MORE: #StateCaptureInquiry: ‘Manyi should be summoned’

Liphoko was promoted to director general from the media buying division. He remained in the position until 2017, when new Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo finally reinstated Williams.

Under Liphoko, Williams returned to her position as deputy director general of GCIS. But in August 2016 she received an internal memorandum in which the vast majority of her functions were withdrawn. They were then transferred to Liphoko, Williams said.

According to Williams, when she approached Muthambi about the change, the minister said: “I thought you had left. I am surprised you are still there.”

Part of Williams’ portfolio was to oversee procurement, which was stripped from her. Williams had also been tasked with overseeing the role of the chief financial officer. Zweli Momeka was the CFO at the time. In her testimony on Friday, Williams told the commission that Momeka had “bullied” the media buying division into participating in the infamous TNA business breakfasts.

According to the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), the CFO is accountable to the director general.

“My understanding of the PFMA is that the minister does not get involved in the running of the department. That in itself was odd to me,” Williams told the commission on Monday.

“In my understanding you don’t just wake up one morning and change and you don’t engage with the people who are concerned. I was never consulted. The sections that were moving, they just woke up one morning and they were told they were no longer [reporting to me],” Williams added.

Her position had effectively been rendered redundant. “I was being paid as a deputy director general for doing all these functions, that [I was not doing],” she said.

Williams wrote to Muthambi on September 17 2016. She wrote: “Whilst I appreciate the prerogative of rearranging the department’s functions resides with the minister, I expect to be treated fairly in conveying the minister’s decision.”

Williams said that a the time she wrote the letter, her treatment by Muthambi had opened up the scars of her arrest and torture at the hands of the apartheid government in 1988.

“The effects of my torture were back. Chairperson, I was no longer sleeping. I was having nightmares. I was realising my situation. My facial twitches were back,” she said choking up.

”I had panic attacks. I saw torture going through my body again. I never thought in this government, people could do such things. I was tortured for weeks, and Muthambi did the same to me … And that is why I wrote this letter; as a way to try and get her to understand what she was doing.”

Williams accused Muthambi of cheating the state because she was being paid despite having lost the majority of her portfolio.

“She wanted that procurement at all costs. She wanted to steal at all costs. That removing of all those functions was a ploy to remove the finance and procurement away from me,” Williams said.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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