/ 30 September 2020

Eastern Cape MEC sues activist for defamation

Lungile Mxube 1440x960
Activist Lungile Mxube is being sued by Eastern Cape member of the executive council for transport Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe, who claims he has defamed her in several Facebook posts. (Bonile Bam)

Lungile Mxube, an Eastern Cape activist, is headed to court in October to defend himself against a defamation lawsuit lodged by the province’s member of the executive council for transport, Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe.

Mxube is the provincial secretary of the United Front, a political organisation that aims to “forge unity, solidarity and action of a broad mass of oppressed and exploited people in South Africa behind a common banner of sustained mass struggles and action…”

According to Tikana-Gxothiwe, Mxube published posts on social media site Facebook between 25 April and 3 May alleging that she is “captured”, her home is a corrupt “Gupta compound”, that she allows senior staff members to “drink expensive whisky in her official office” and that she has improper relations with her staff.

For these remarks, the MEC wants Mxube to pay her R250 000 in damages and to publish an apology on his Facebook page and in the Eastern Cape-based Daily Dispatch newspaper. Meanwhile, the high court in Mkhanda has ordered Mxube to temporarily remove these posts from Facebook.

In her legal papers, Tikana-Gxothiwe says the allegations are false, defamatory and “can have far-reaching implications on my good standing and dignity as an MEC and MPL [member of the provincial legislature]”.

“The sting of the respondent’s statements is that I am corrupt, incompetent, lacking in integrity, involved in criminal enterprises and/or a liar,” reads her submission.

The apology she wants Mxube to publish includes this sentence: “Ms Tikana-Gxothiwe has not been found guilty by any court of law and it was wrong of me to refer to her as corrupt or running a criminal enterprise or being part of a mafia or to refer to her private life.”

Not the first defamation case

This is Tikana-Gxothiwe’s second defamation lawsuit since the lockdown began. In June, she lost her case against United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa, who had published a statement on Twitter alleging that she is an owner of Mioca Guesthouse, which was to be used as an official Covid-19 quarantine site. 

Tikana-Gxothiwe denied ownership of the guesthouse. The court, however, found that although Mioca Lodge has been registered solely in the name of her daughter, Kwakhanya Tikana, since she was 21 years old, Tikana “did not attempt to explain from where she obtained the capital to register, set up and run Mioca (Pty) Ltd”. And in the absence of an explanation, Tikana-Gxothiwe was “in all probability the owner thereof”. Her application to appeal the ruling was dismissed in August.

Public protector probes

According to the Daily Dispatch, Tikana-Gxothiwe and Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane are both currently being investigated separately by the public protector over claims made in May 2019 by businessperson Lonwabo Bam that he had paid R450 000 for renovations at Mabuyane’s private home.

Bam also claimed that he gave Tikana-Gxothiwe R400 000 from a scam allegedly masterminded by a provincial government official. The Daily Dispatch reported that Bam said he was told to invoice Tikana-Gxothiwe’s department for R2.2 million and the Mbizana municipality for R1 million. He claimed he was told that, after he received payment, he should make deposits into the accounts of Babalo Madikizela, member of the executive council for public works, Tikana-Gxothiwe as well as other people. Bam alleged that he was told to buy Madikizela clothes from the Gucci store in Sandton. 

Mabuyane’s chief of staff denied the allegations, saying that the R2.2 million was a donation to the Eastern Cape ANC from Bam. Tikana-Gxothiwe also denied receiving any funds.

The public protector has also agreed to a request from the Cala University Students Association and Holomisa to investigate whether the use of Mioca Lodge to house the road workers constituted an abuse of power, improper conduct and improperly benefitting.

Other investigations

A forensic investigation into the Eastern Cape transport department was announced five months ago by Mabuyane. The investigation was initially being conducted by the provincial treasury. Mabuyane’s spokesperson, Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha, says it is now being carried out by an external company. Sicwetsha would not name the company nor say when the investigation would be complete.

The investigation is looking into a string of allegations that include a case of sanitisers bought at inflated prices; Tikana-Gxothiwe’s guesthouse housing road workers for one year at government expense; the improper spending of funds meant for the funeral service of 25 people from Centane who died in a bus accident in March this year; and the improper procurement of Bailey bridges.

In addition to these multiple investigations, in 2019 the Daily Dispatch reported that the Public Service Commission investigated allegations of irregular appointments brought by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union. The commission found that Tikana-Gxothiwe had appointed managers who did not have the required qualifications, including deputy director general Lomex Sisilana. He started out as an intern, but quickly became an assistant director and a senior manager of scholar transport.

In August, the Daily Dispatch reported on a leaked recording of Tikana-Gxothiwe telling her subordinates at a meeting that she had indeed “used” Sisilana to hire certain people for positions in the department, even though they were not qualified. No action was taken against her. 

Tikana-Gxothiwe is also in trouble with the provincial standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) after she launched an attack on her former head of department Irene Mpolweni during a committee meeting last year, and for her department officials arriving to present at the committee without any written reports. On 5 September, Mabuyane apologised in writing to Scopa and directed Tikana-Gxothiwe to do the same. 

“I reprimanded the MEC and reiterated that, at all times, she needs to display the exemplary leadership commensurate with a public office bearer. I further reminded the MEC that accountability is one of the fundamental ethos of my administration. I also directed the MEC to also reprimand the officials of the Government Fleet Management Services for their misdemeanour,” wrote Mabuyane in a letter to Scopa. Despite this, the same officials arrived again at a Scopa meeting in September without any written reports.

Meanwhile, it has come to light that Vaxobyte, a supply chain management company owned by Tikana-Gxothiwe’s husband, Thembelihle Gxothiwe, recently won a R1.6 million tender to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to the provincial education department.

New legal team dealing with Mxube

After losing her defamation lawsuit against Holomisa and the subsequent appeal, Tikana-Gxothiwe sacked her legal team and hired media law experts from Webber Wentzel attorneys to represent her in the defamation case against Mxube. 

Mxube is a well-known whistle-blower and anti-corruption activist in the Eastern Cape. He has worked in senior management in the Makhanda and Kouga municipalities. In 2004, he was dismissed by the Makhanda municipality after exposing allegedly corrupt officials. The exposed officials were later fired too.

Currently unemployed, Mxube, a former highly placed ANC insider, was once the party’s regional deputy chairperson and a district secretary of the South African Communist Party. 

In his court papers, Mxube argues that there are “obviously serious problems in [Tikana-Gxothiwe’s] department and the public has a right to know and to be informed why the problems continue to exist”. He says he is a whistle-blower and his Facebook posts were based on different sources who “would not be prepared to come forward and say what they know without facing repercussions”. He goes on to say that the content of most of his posts had already appeared in the media, that Tikana-Gxothiwe’s lawsuit is “vague and embarrassing”, and he challenges her to provide several different internal documents that he says will prove his allegations.

In responding papers, Tikana-Gxothiwe says Mxube’s Facebook posts are clearly defamatory, and that he is “on a fishing expedition”, attempting to have the court compel her to provide internal documents that he “did not have sight of before publishing the posts”. 

“He guessed at their contents and then defamed me on the basis of his guesswork, instead of first attempting to get the documents,” said Tikana-Gxothiwe’s replying affidavit.

Tikana-Gxothiwe recently hired a private investigator, Leon Nel from Cold Cases, who contacted Mxube and, while attempting to hide his identity, instructed him to drive to East London to “answer questions”. Mxube refused to go to the meeting. 

When asked about this, Tikana-Gxothiwe’s spokesperson, Unathi Binqose, would not divulge Nel’s name, saying this was a “delicate matter” and that Nel had been hired to investigate “any person who distributes content that seeks to defame Ms Tikana-Gxothiwe”.

Scholar transport money not accounted for

Last year, R55.5 million in scholar transport funds could not be accounted for and Tikana-Gxothiwe admitted to the provincial legislature in August that almost 30 000 needy pupils were not getting scholar transport.

Although two ANC youth league regions in the province and the DA sent out statements during lockdown calling for Tikana-Gxothiwe to be axed, she is still in her post. She has the political support of Mabuyane, the ANC Women’s League and some sections of the youth league. According to some residents of her hometown, Cala, she is also a niece of ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe. 

Binqose would not confirm this, however. He promised to respond to questions sent by New Frame on 5 September but eventually failed to do so.

This article was first published on New Frame