/ 4 May 2020

Sisulu disbands her own national rapid-response task team

Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Lindiwe Sisulu.
Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said she had appointed the task team based on its “strength and capabilities” and had believed its members would do their jobs without any form of corruption. (David Harrison/M&G)

Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has quietly fired her controversial R13-million-a-year national rapid-response task team (NRRTT). This is as her department rolls out mass initiatives, such as supplying nearly 20 000 water tanks, in response to the Covid-19 crisis

The Mail & Guardian has previously reported on allegations that the team included people who are focused on running her campaign for the ANC presidency in 2022.  

The axing of the advisory team comes on the heels of corruption charges being laid against its head and long-term Sisulu aide and associate Mphumzi Mdekazi by executives of two water boards under the department’s control. 

It also comes against the backdrop of complaints to the presidency from the boards that the task team was attempting to bankroll Sisulu’s political campaign at the taxpayers’ expense.

At the weekend, Sisulu axed the interim Amatola Water Board and placed it under administration — and announced that she planned to do the same with the Lepelle Northern Water Board. The chief executives of both boards had earlier blown the whistle on Mdekazi, accusing him of political interference and corruption, and laying charges against him in terms of anti-corruption legislation.

Sisulu also issued a statement warning about “fake news” being circulated about her department.

Despite having earlier defended the appointment of the rapid-response task team — at a cost of nearly R14-million a year — and dismissing claims that it was illegally bankrolling her political campaign, Sisulu is now moving to distance herself from it and Mdekazi.

Mdekazi moved with Sisulu to human settlements from the international relations department, where he was employed as her adviser. He had previously worked with her during her first deployment to the housing ministry.

In a letter to the members of the task team, which the M&G has seen, Sisulu said she had been forced by the conduct of members of the team to shut it down with immediate effect.

Sisulu said that she had appointed the task team based on its “strength and capabilities” and had believed its members would do their jobs without any form of corruption.

However, it had come to her attention in recent months that “some people within the collective” were “meant to tarnish the image of the minister” and had joined the task team to “pursue their business interest[s] and easy wealth accumulation at the expense of the good cause”.

Sisulu said she “deliberately kept quiet” when she realised that “some” task teams members were purporting to be driving a campaign for her to become ANC president in 2022.

“These were done without the knowledge of myself as the minister. The people who were involved in these activities went around the length and breadth of our country soliciting deals and getting financial support, purportedly either on behalf of the minister and or the campaign,” she said.

“It was clear that this has now become another animal; not the NRRTT that I know.”

Sisulu added: “I am deeply hurt and angered by the collapse of the ethics, discipline and code of good governance within the NRRTT.” 

As a result, she said: “After careful consideration of all these factors and others that have been brought to my attention by various individuals and law enforcement agencies, I came to the conclusion that I must, with immediate effect disband, the NRRTT.” 

She said it was clear that the task team had outlived its mandate and that it would be closed down with immediate effect. Members would be expected to deliver a closing report of their work and would be paid for April and May.

Sisulu said she was contemplating laying criminal charges against some of the task team members over their conduct. Her office would communicate the decision to the department and its structures.

At the time of publication, Sisulu’s spokesperson, McIntosh Polela, said he was meeting the minister and would respond thereafter. 

When he did respond, he said that the NRRTT had not been disbanded.

“The NRRTT has not been disbanded. The NRRTT continues to do its work,” Polela said.

“Members of an entity are not employed as a group. They are employed individually. This is also the case when contracts are terminated. This has not happened and so, the NRRTT continues doing its work,” he said.

Polela would not comment on the authenticity of the memorandum seen by the M&G.

“As to the authenticity of the memo, I cannot comment on a document that the department has not furnished to the media, as that would be affirming a leaked document,” he said.

Polela said he was not aware of any charges laid against any members of the NRRTT.

Polela declined to comment on whether charges had been laid against Mdekazi by water board members. He also declined to comment on whether the department was taking any action over the criminal charges which have been brought against Mdekazi.

“That is a matter between the employee and the employer,” he said.

DA MP Emma Powell said Sisulu’s axing of the boards appeared to be a pre-emptive measure sparked by the charges laid by the chief executives.

“These are pre-emptive measures designed to place the ministry on the front foot and nullify the bona fide and incredibly serious allegations contained in the affidavits of the chief executives of both the water boards concerned,” she said.  

Powell said she would report the matter to the public protector and to Parliament. 

“We further commend the bravery of all whistle-blowers and send our encouragement to officials whose images are deliberately tarnished as a result of their attempts to expose government maleficence,” Powell said.