It's Jomo vs Dina!

2013-04-28 14:00

Communications minister blames football boss for ‘smear campaign’

Football legend Jomo Sono is the mystery businessman at the centre of a so-called “blackmail campaign” against Communications Minister Dina Pule.

City Press can reveal that Pule was referring to the millionaire Jomo Cosmos club owner when she publicly declared war at an unprecedented press conference this week.

Sono’s company, Jomo Sono Investments, is one of 36 companies in the running for the multibillion-rand set-top-box tender to be awarded by Pule’s department.

The tender, to provide millions of decoder-like devices to South Africans without pay-TV access, has been called “the new arms deal” by industry insiders.

City Press has established that Sono and Robert Nkuna, a former Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) councillor and special adviser to Pule’s late predecessor, Roy Padayachie, were instrumental in brokering a meeting between Pule and Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika on June 19 last year.

The meeting took place two days after Wa Afrika, whose real name is Leonard Ndzhukula, and his colleagues published details of how businessman Phosane Mngqibisa benefited from the R102 million ICT Indaba organised by the communications department.

The paper refers to Mngqibisa as Pule’s boyfriend.

The Sunday Times followed up the story with others about Mngqibisa’s alleged influence over top-level decisions in the department.

This led to investigations being instituted by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and Parliament’s ethics and members’ interests committee.

Pule is scheduled to appear before the committee on Thursday and Friday.

City Press understands that Madonsela’s office is seeking to interview Sono as part of its investigation.

On Monday, Pule accused the Sunday Times of collaborating with “businesspeople and politicians with interests in the tender for the manufacture of set-top boxes as part of digital migration” in a “smear campaign” against her.

Without naming Sono, she said Wa Afrika was a “close associate” of these people and became involved in their business interests after being fired from the Sunday Times a few years ago.

City Press interviewed four people with knowledge of the June 19 meeting. All confirmed Sono’s roll in organising it.

The meeting took place at the Southern Sun hotel on Katherine Street, Sandton.

Sono strongly denied meeting with Pule. He said: “I once met her on an overseas flight, where I just greeted her. That was all.”

He did not divulge his role in brokering a meeting between the minister and the Sunday Times.

Wa Afrika yesterday admitted Sono’s role in facilitating the meeting, but said the football mogul “excused himself from the venue prior to the start of it”.

He said he had known Sono “for many years” and wasn’t aware of the fact that Sono’s company was tendering for the set-top-box project.

According to a source with direct knowledge of the meeting, it was preceded by an informal discussion a few weeks earlier between Sono, Nkuna and Mngqibisa.

“Sono and Nkuna were meeting at the Southern Sun about an unrelated matter when Mngqibisa saw them.

“He (Mngqibisa) went over to them and said to Jomo, ‘I see you are interested in the set-top box. I think you stand a chance.’

“Mngqibisa said the minister was under attack and Mzi (Wa Afrika) was leading the charge. Jomo said, ‘I know Mzi.’ Mngqibisa responded: ‘Please talk to him.’”

On June 17, the Sunday Times published the first article linking Pule romantically to Mngqibisa.

According to Pule, she received a call “from Wa

Afrika’s associates” on that day, proposing that they facilitate a meeting between her and the journalist, and “promising to assist me to make the story disappear”.

City Press understands Pule will testify that it was Sono who called her. At Monday’s press conference, she said: “These are the very same people who have submitted a bid for the set-top-box tender.

“In their own words, they said to me, and I quote: ‘Minister, we can help you manage that young man, Mzilikazi, because he is our man. We raised him.’”

Nkuna also assisted in bringing the parties together: he called Themba Phiri, a deputy director-general for ICT policy development in Pule’s department, to set up a meeting with the minister.

Wa Afrika said he was called by Sono, who said he had just met with Mngqibisa, on June 17. Sono said Mngqibisa asked him to facilitate a meeting between the Sunday Times and Pule.

Wa Afrika said he told his colleagues about the offer and they decided to attend.

“Sono told me that the minister preferred I attended the meeting alone as it would be an off-the-record meeting. After another discussion with my colleagues, it was agreed that I should attend the meeting alone as the minister might later say she tried to give us her side of the story and we refused,” Wa Afrika said.

Mngqibisa said he was “astounded” by the Sunday Times’ claim that he organised the meeting.

“I deny ever having arranged any such meeting. The Sunday Times has to this day never bothered to verify this with me. Why would I ask Mr Sono, who is not a media consultant, to arrange a meeting with the newspaper? This borders on the absurd.”

On June 18, Pule was invited to attend a meeting at the Southern Sun hotel scheduled for the following day.

“Despite my initial reservations, and after careful consideration, I decided to attend the meeting, which took place on 19 June 2012. The reason I attended the meeting was to establish the issues that were behind the story,” Pule said.

She asked Phiri to accompany her to the meeting. According to two sources with direct knowledge of the meeting, Sono was already at the hotel when Pule arrived.

“Sono was in the hotel. He greeted Minister Pule and left. He said he couldn’t sit in the meeting, because if he tendered (for the set-top-box contract) he didn’t want it to look like he met the minister,” said one source.

Phiri told City Press he saw Sono as he entered the hotel.

“I saw him as we were coming in. I saw Mzi sitting around with Jomo.”

He said his understanding was that the journalist and the soccer boss are closely associated.

“Sono and the journalist know each other, as I understand it. They have a relationship.”

At the time, Phiri didn’t know that Sono was tendering for the lucrative set-top-box deal.

He concurred that Sono didn’t attend the meeting at which he, Pule, Wa Afrika and Nkuna were present.

“We wanted to understand why he was writing all of these stories, to get his perspective. The minister was willing to share her own understanding, and she did.

“But my sense was that Wa Afrika was not interested, not moved by what the minister was saying.”

On Monday, Pule claimed that Wa Afrika offered to “quash” the information he had on her if she would give him a story incriminating President Jacob Zuma as well as another corruption story.

Wa Afrika denied this.

Although he “doesn’t want to be throwing such things in the media”, Phiri, who was in the meeting, said “it looked like a journalistic strategy to say ‘drop one story in favour of something else’. He (Wa Afrika) had an interesting perspective on President Zuma, which dates back from 2010”.

Phiri said both Nkuna and Wa Afrika were close to Sono.

“It was funny because they all spoke the same language – all of them. It was one of the minority languages.”

Nkuna, who was appointed to the broadcasting subcommittee of the Premier Soccer League in January this year, responded that he was not present at any meeting between Pule and Wa Afrika “in which business was discussed, unless it is a case of being caught in the crossfire”.

Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt said she would investigate any claims against any journalist “provided we are given proof of wrongdoing. I await proof from Ms Pule”, she said.

The story so far

» On June 17, the Sunday Times reported that Pule lobbied telecommunications companies to pay R25.7 million for the ICT Indaba. Carol Bouwer Designs was appointed as organisers and they subcontracted Phosane Mngqibisa. The paper reported that Mngqibisa was romantically linked to Pule.

» On July 8, the Sunday Times reported that Telkom launched a forensic investigation into how its sponsorship money was spent.

» On September 11, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela announced a probe into Pule’s role in the ICT Indaba.

» On February 3 this year, the paper reported that Mngqibisa was paid R6 million in management fees for the ICT Indaba.

» On March 24, the paper printed revelations that an internal audit showed Mngqibisa allegedly engineered the appointment of cronies and relatives to the boards of the Post Office, Sentech, Usasa and the SABC.

» On March 27, Parliament announced that its Ethics Committee would investigate Pule.

» Last week the paper reported that Pule paid R2.6 million to a recruitment firm, Mindworx, that has links to Mngqibisa and that appointed his associates to key positions in communications parastatals.

TechCentral editor Duncan McLeod wrote this week that Pule has “dealt successfully with few of the issues that need her urgent attention if the sector is to prosper”.

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