/ 5 February 2020

Acsa courts controversy over ‘unfair’ and inconsistent dismissal of officials

Fundi Sithebe
Acting ACSA chief executive Fundi Sithebe.

The dismissal of two executives at the Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) — after an initial recommendation from the chairperson of their independent disciplinary hearing that they receive a final warning — has led to accusations of selective prosecution and purging. 

Before their dismissal — for making payments of up to R14.9-million without prior approval and then seeking condonation as part of the process to regularise the payment in 2013 — the two executives had been suspended for 22 months. 

During that time, group specialist in commercial marketing Shethal Badal and Mahesh Govind, who was assistant general manager retail, were put before three different independent disciplinary hearing chairpeople. They both initially faced four different charges, which were later increased to 12 charges in both cases. 

In the final hearing the chair, acting judge Hamilton Maenetje SC, found the two guilty of one of the 12 charges they were facing and recommended that they be issued with final written warnings. 

Eight of the charges were withdrawn and three could not be sustained. The two employees were found guilty on one charge of misconduct for failing to ensure that they sought prior approval from Acsa’s tender committee before making extra payments on a contract. The payments were later condoned. 

Recommended sanctions 

In his sanction recommendation report, submitted on November 23, Maenetje criticised Acsa for presenting — during arguments on sanctions — a witness who himself had committed the same offence but was not punished. 

Sifiso Khumalo, who was Badal’s and Govind’s immediate superior, testified on behalf of Acsa that the two accuseds’ relationship with Acsa had broken down as a result of their actions. But this testimony was dismissed by Maenetje, who said that, although the misconduct was serious, the fact that the airports company had not acted against Khumalo — and others at Acsa who had committed the same infraction — meant that dismissing Badal and Govind would be “unfair and offend the principle that disciplinary action ought to be applied fairly and consistently”.

Maenetje said in his sanction that: “The only distinction is that in his [Khumalo’s] case, consequence management was recommended as part of the condonation decision. This distinction makes the position of the two employees relatively better than that of Mr Khumalo.”

In the end he recommended a final written warning valid for six months and that Acsa put in place measures to discourage condonations.

But his recommendations were overturned in late December by acting chief executive Fundi Sithebe. She gave Badal and Govind until December 20, later extended to January 10, to provide reasons why they should not be dismissed over the guilty finding. In a letter to one of them, she said Maenetje had “failed to apply his mind” to the risk posed by the duo’s continued employment at Acsa.

The dismissal was effected on January 21, despite representations, just seven days before Acsa’s new chief executive Mpumi Mpofu reported for work. 

Disciplinary anomalies

Several people, including Acsa employees with direct knowledge of the matter, highlighted anomalies in the process, saying it was unfair and biased. 

Some of the issues raised, included: 

  • That Acsa acted only in 2016 for something that happened in 2013; 
  • That the two were the only employees ever to be disciplined for condonations; 
  • That Khumalo, who subsequently resigned and left Acsa, was treated differently to Badal and Govind; 
  • That other executives, including Acsa’s head of HR, were kept in the dark about the case; and  
  • That Acsa had placed the two — together with another colleague who resigned — on paid suspension for 22 months and paid them a total of R18-million in salaries during this period.

“Consider that these people were suspended in 2016 and charged with so many charges … and in the end found guilty for one minor condonation, which was itself a sub-charge. This is in a company that records hundreds of millions per year in condonations; you can see there is another agenda at play,” said one source, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. 

Another source said it was bizarre that Sithebe, who has now reverted to her position as chief operations officer, had taken such special interest in the matter to the point of excluding the rest of the executive. “Acsa policy is very clear that HR deals with it, but this was run by Fundi to a point where other executives did not even know about the DC [disciplinary committee] process until you sent your media inquiry.”

A source with direct knowledge of the matter said it was strange that the entire disciplinary process was kept from the rest of Acsa’s executives and Sithebe seemed to be running with it on her own. 

“It’s also interesting that she would act so hastily on literally her last week as acting CEO instead of waiting for the new CEO [Mpumi Mpofu, who was appointed in December],” said the source. 

“Consider that she acted without involving the rest of the executive, and that the company has not done anything about the fact that irregular expenditure throughout the whole company was R396-million and R264-million [respectively] in 2018 and 2019.”

Acsa acting group executive for corporate affairs Mphilo Dlamini, in a response to a media inquiry sent earlier this month, would say only that: “Airports Company South Africa does not comment on or discuss disciplinary matters involving individual employees. We are confident that due process was followed in all instances and that the requirements of labour law and company policy have been adhered to.”