The inner workings of the Ingonyama Trust Board (ITB) — currently under fire in Parliament over its financial management — have been placed under further public scrutiny in the labour court battle between 11 suspended staff members and its chairperson, Jerome Ngwenya.
The staff members, including chief executive officer Lucas Mkhwanazi and chief financial officer Amin Mia, have gone to court to force the board to pay them their salaries, which were stopped at the end of March, saying that they were being withheld maliciously on Ngwenya’s instruction.
The staffers, five of whom have been on special leave since 2016, have claimed in court papers that Ngwenya has used them as a “scapegoat” for “problems” created by the ITB board in the way in which it administers the Ingonyama Trust.
These included the ITB’s failure to submit its budget to the department of land reform and rural development for the 2020/2021 financial, which has resulted in the department holding back R23-million in funding from the entity.
In papers submitted to the labour court, which will hear the matter on Friday, May 8, Mkhwanazi said the ITB had “taken advantage” of the lockdown declared in terms of the Disaster Management Act to deprive them of their salaries while continuing to pay every other staff member.
Mkhwanazi said five staff members had been suspended from their duties and placed on special leave since August 2016 on “trumped up” charges that were “without proper substance” and “politically motivated”.
An inquiry had commenced, but had stopped after the chairperson died last year. No new chairperson had been appointed.
A sixth, Thembeka Ndlovu, had been placed on special leave in May 2018 by Ngwenya, and had “heard nothing further” from him.
Mkhwanazi said he, Mia and three other senior managers had been asked by the board to answer questions regarding an ITB security contract in January.
“We were surprised at the request. The procurement in question was handled at the behest and with the full knowledge of … Ngwenya,” Mkhwanazi said. “The procurement was urgent and we followed the dictates of Ngwenya as to how the matter should be handled.”
He said the group was then placed on special leave for two months, pending investigation, and were told to hand in their laptops and phones. They were also removed from the ITB computer network.
The special leave, he said, was extended and the five were issued a notice by Ngwenya that they would not be paid under a “no work, no pay’’ policy. The other six were not given any notification that their salaries had been stopped.
Mkhwanazi said Ngwenya had subsequently blamed him and Mia for the late submission of the budget, saying this had resulted in the ITB having no money to pay them.
He said this was “ thoroughly disingenuous and misleading” given that the ITB’s own minutes showed the budget process had deferred to its management committee last November to set a date for its finalisation. Ngwenya chairs the management committee.
“At no stage prior to our suspension at the end of January has the board convened another meeting or placed the approval of the budget on its agenda. For Ngwenya to attempt to blame [Mia] and I for the apparent failure of the board as the accounting authority to obtain approval for the budget is facile in the extreme,’’ he said.
Mkhwanazi said the decision not to pay them was unlawful and arbitrary because the rest of the ITB staff complement, who were also not at work because of the lockdown, were still being paid.
Mkhwanazi said there was an “unfortunate tendency’’ for the ITB board to use its employees as “scapegoats’’ when its decisions were questioned.
Ngwenya did not respond to questions from the Mail & Guardian this week. The former judge has, over the past 18 to 24 months, consistently declined to respond to questions from this newspaper, choosing instead to issue threats of legal action after publication.
However, presenting the ITB strategic plan to a joint sitting of parliament’s land reform committee on Tuesday, acting ITB chief executive Sandile Gabela confirmed that the entity had failed to meet the deadline for submitting its budget for the year.
Gabela said the ITB was “busy with that process now”.
He said the ITB was unable to provide the five-year breakdown of lease revenue — and an account of how much had been allocated to communities and traditional authorities — because this information was being compiled by its lawyers ahead of the leases case.
“Due to time constraint, as well as the pending court case, this information is being prepared in consultation with the lawyers and is as yet to be finalised since it is part of the dispute in the pending matter,’’ Gabela said.
The ITB’s residential lease programme is being challenged by nongovernmental organisations and residents of ITB land in the high court in Pietermaritzburg. The matter will be heard once the lockdown is lifted.
Ngwenya told the meeting that the belief that the ITB had defaulted on an obligation to allocate 90% of its revenue to communities was not correct.
“There is no such obligation for starters. We did not default,” Ngwenya said.
He said the ITB was allocated only R22-million by the department, which was not enough to meet even its salary bill. For this reason, he said, the ITB did not run projects or deliver services.
In response to questions from MPs as to what services to communities — including projects for the youth and women — it provided, Ngwenya said this was the role of the traditional authorities and not the ITB.
“Projects for women and youth cannot be there without any money,” Ngwenya said, adding that the entity had never before failed to submit its budget on time.
He said Gabela had been appointed in February this year.
“The issue between the ITB and its personnel who are currently on special leave and not on suspension is now a matter before the court. We can say no more than what we are saying now.”
He added: “No employee is on suspension. They are on special leave, but we can give no further information.”