/ 2 August 2019

‘I walked into a shitstorm’

Damned if you do: Like many whistle-blowers
Damned if you do: Like many whistle-blowers, Simphiwe Mayisela felt he did ‘the right thing’ by reporting suspicious dealings at the PIC, but he’s now finding it impossible to get work. Photo Delwyn Verasamy



On September 1 2017, Simphiwe Mayisela entered the offices of the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) in the Pretoria suburb of Brooklyn to start his job as the company’s head of information technology (IT) security.

But, within 60 days he would unwittingly play a central role in uncovering a web of questionable transactions at Africa’s biggest asset manager, which implicated its senior management, including its former chief executive, Dan Matjila.

Mayisela was suspended, faced a disciplinary hearing and was fired. He is still struggling to find work, saying he is informally “blacklisted” by his peers in the IT industry.

“I walked into a shitstorm. My life changed overnight. I went from being a highly sought-after expert in my field to persona non grata.”

Within just three days of starting his new job, Mayisela was tasked by now-suspended PIC chief financial officer Matshepo More to ensure that emails sent by a whistle-blower using the name James Nogu, under the subject line “PIC CEO funds girlfriend”, were blocked.

In March, Mayisela told the Mpati commission, which is investigating allegations of impropriety at the PIC, that he wasn’t concerned by this request because he regarded it as a “normal request to block spam”.

On September 13 2017, another damning email from Nogu implicated Matjila in a scheme to favour a company associated with Pretty Louw, whom Nogu had “learned” was Matjila’s girlfriend, a claim he denied. The email included an attachment on a PIC letterhead, seeking approval for it to lease mobile healthcare units from Mobile Specialised Technologies as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility programme.

Matjila told the commission he had been introduced to Louw by former minister of state security David Mahlobo at OR Tambo International Airport. Mahlobo asked him to assist Louw because her business was in need of rescue. Matjila then forwarded the request to Lawrence Mulaudzi, a businessman who had benefited from PIC funding. Mulaudzi told the commission that he gave Louw R300 000.

Shortly after the Nogu emails emerged, Matjila instructed Mayisela to open a case with the police to obtain a section 205 subpoena to determine their source. The police, however, were less interested in finding who leaked the emails than investigating whether a crime had been committed at the PIC. Mayisela found himself working with the police, trying to verify the allegations against Matjila.

In his 27-page statement to the commission, Mayisela said he started co-operating with the police because the “contents of the James Nogu email started to weigh upon [me] … the allegations were so detailed and categorical that [I] believed they could not be dismissed as mere scandalising”.

Advocate Geoff Budlender investigated Matjila’s supposed relationship with Louw on behalf of the PIC, but found no evidence of an improper or romantic relationship.

In December 2017, disciplinary steps against Mayisela began. He was first charged with accessing PIC documents intended for Matjila and then for downloading pornographic material on his employer’s laptop. This second charge was later withdrawn. A disciplinary panel headed by advocate Nazeer Cassim found him guilty of providing confidential PIC information to the police, being in possession of this information and failing to inform Matjila that he was the subject of a corruption investivation — and he was dismissed.

Nogu has been the subject of much speculation at the commission. Matjila denied knowing the identity of Nogu, but said he strongly believed he was either an employee of the PIC or a group of employees there. He said he believed that Mayisela was involved in the Nogu “campaign” to oust him from the PIC. Mayisela told the M&G that this was not the case.

Matjila abruptly stepped down as chief executive in November 1.

“I definitely don’t know who James Nogu is, but I think that it’s someone who drinks coffee with Matjila,” Mayisela said. “If you look at the allegations in the emails, it’s not an ordinary employee of the PIC that would have that information, so it’s someone that is very close to him.”

Mayisela said the incidents of alleged intimidation and fear at the PIC, as detailed at the commission by current and former employees, were isolated and further proves that he was not collaborating with any employee at the corporation to remove Matjila. “It’s not a case of us ganging up against him. During the commission of inquiry people saw an opportunity to tell their truth. We were not working together.”

Mayisela has opened a cybersecurity firm, SS Consulting, but says business has been tough. The company employs seven contract workers, but to date has only one client.

“Prior to me starting my company my CV was on the market. Prior to this PIC incident I’d never attended an interview and not been offered a job. [Now] all my efforts to get a job have been fruitless. I don’t think there’s any company that would be interested in hiring me now,” he said.

Mayisela’s former senior manager at the PIC, Vuyokazi Menye, was the subject of investigations conducted by information and communications technology company BCX to find the source of the emails. She told the commission in March she was shocked when she discovered that she was being investigated on Matjila’s instructions for breaching internal PIC policy.

After a disciplinary hearing held at about the same time as Mayisela’s, she was dismissed. Although her charge sheet was similar to that of her subordinate, the disciplinary panel found her not guilty of any misconduct. She was given R7.2-million by the PIC as a settlement. Mayisela told the commission this payment was “tantamount to bribery”.

“When she was offered to take [the money] she refused to take it. She was literally crying. I was there and they had to beg her to take it,” he told the M&G. He said he would have accepted such an offer. “They only offered me a month’s settlement, that was ridiculous. If it was a 12-month settlement I would’ve taken it. It was going to alleviate my financial commitments at the time.”

Mayisela said he does not regret blowing the whistle on suspicious dealings at the PIC, but would rather the whole ordeal had not happened. His case of unfair dismissal is before the labour court and he hopes it will end in a settlement. He does not wish to go back to the PIC.

Mayisela is being supported by civil society organisation, the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, which also provided support to now reinstated PIC company secretary Bongani Mathebula.

William Bourdon, a human rights lawyer and a founder of the platform, said Mayisela’s case is unique, in that he did not initially intend to blow the whistle. “It is premature to speculate on the outcome of the PIC commission, but if it indeed comes back censuring the board and executive for the acts exposed by the original anonymous whistle-blower, then Mayisela’s role in assisting SAPS [the South African Police Service] investigate these acts is nothing short of heroic,” he said.

The commission resumes on August 12, with Matjila expected to continue his testimony.

Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the M&G