Lindiwe Sisulu accused of flushing out officials blocking her adviser’s pet project

2020-05-08 05:01
Lindiwe Sisulu. (PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/GALLO IMAGES).

Lindiwe Sisulu. (PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/GALLO IMAGES).

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The chief executives of Amatola Water and Lepelle Northern Water claim they are being targeted because they are standing in the way of efforts to manipulate tenders and appoint a well-connected company for drought relief programmes.

At the heart of the accusations is Mphumzi Mdekazi, a close confidante and adviser to Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu.

Amatola Water chief executive Vuyo Zitumane and her Lepelle Northern Water counterpart, Phineas Legodi, both state in affidavits Mdekazi and the department have tried to pressure them into using a technology called sand water abstraction, to extract water from sandy riverbeds.

Both are currently on "precautionary suspension".

A company called Empowering Water Solutions (EWS) was touted as the patent owner of the technology and the only company able to provide the service.

The affidavits suggest Sisulu had developed a keen interest in the matter and accuse the department of intervening on the side of Mdekazi and EWS when it became apparent the two chief executives would not bend tender regulations.

Mdekazi, who came with the minister from her previous posting at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, is said to be Sisulu's political fixer, though he denies this.

Sensationally, Zitumane alleges in her affidavit Mdekazi had told her he was in financial trouble and "needs about R35 million to defray the debt incurred for the presidential campaign he led for the minister prior to Nasrec".

Mdekazi told amaBhungane: "I cannot comment on this question as I do not have knowledge of it and cannot be responsible for rumours."

Neither Zitumane nor Legodi's affidavits provide any indication of how Mdekazi might benefit from contracts awarded to EWS.

Sisulu launched a short-lived campaign to succeed Jacob Zuma as ANC president in July 2017, ahead of the watershed conference at the Nasrec exhibition centre that saw Cyril Ramaphosa elected by a narrow margin in December that year.

Since then, she has been accused of using her new role to build a team to further her presidential ambitions.

Despite her denials, questions have persisted about the appointment and role of the people she has gathered around her, including figures such as Menzi Simelane, Jurgen Kogl, Moe Shaik, Gugile Nkwinti, Bathabile Dlamini and Mdekazi himself. 

There are rumours Sisulu and Mdekazi are in a romantic relationship, though Mdekazi has emphatically denied this.

"It's an open secret," one former senior official told amaBhungane.   

Both Zitumane and Legodi allege Mdekazi actively promoted EWS and both link moves against them to their failure to move quickly to appoint it.

Zitumane states at the beginning of her affidavit: "I firmly believe that Mdekazi was executing the unlawful instructions issued by the minister."

Mdekazi is described in Legodi's affidavit as being someone who "came across as a highly influential figure in the ministry".

Zitumane makes similar claims in her affidavit, saying: "Mr Mdekazi once indicated his influence in the hiring and firing of board members."

Sisulu's spokesperson, McIntosh Polela, refused to engage with questions concerning the allegations in the affidavits, telling amaBhungane: "We have not been furnished with such an affidavit. We therefore cannot comment something whose veracity we cannot prove."

He also refused to respond to claims Sisulu and Mdekazi were intimate.

Polela said the minister had no relationship with EWS and no pressure was ever exerted from her office to engage or favour the company. (See his full response.)

Mdekazi, through his lawyer, said: "The allegation that Mr Mdekazi is close to the minister and that the minister allows him to be law unto himself is not correct and has no basis. It is highly disingenuous for anyone to even suggest the existence of an intimate relationship between a minister and an adviser … this is regrettable and its truthfulness is denied."

He added: "Any suggestion of evidence to the effect that the adviser brags about his power to appoint and dismiss board members is denied.

"The CEO should not confuse any attempts to hold her to account with being a victim of harassment because she claims that she is standing in the way of anyone who seeks to advance corrupt interest."

Mdekazi denied any relationship with EWS "except for a professional relationship like any other relationship existing between stakeholders". (See our questions and his full response.)

In a lengthy affidavit, EWS chairperson Lungile Bomela says the company's appointment was "legitimate and legal" and followed approved processes in the case of both Amatola and Lepelle.

He denied any relationship with the minister or Mdekazi "beyond [what] is acceptable within the norm of stakeholders".

Bomela said he had met neither Sisulu nor Mdekazi prior to a stakeholder meeting with the minister in about August 2019.

He suggested companies involved in drilling boreholes might have seen EWS' system as a threat and people within Amatola were resistant to EWS' involvement.

He said the company had not received a cent from Amatola, though one pilot project had been funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC), a separate statutory body.   

Turbulence at Amatola

In her affidavit, commissioned on 28 April, Zitumane describes an extraordinary introduction to Mdekazi and his seeming influence.

The now suspended head of Amatola Water says she met Mdekazi for the first time on 12 August last year at a presentation by the utility's board in Pretoria.

That same evening he called and asked to meet her.

She states: "During our conversation at that meeting, he created an impression that he had the authority of running the department. This impression was further confirmed by the manner in which he related with the minister on the phone, as the minister called him while we were in the meeting…

"At the meeting, he further spoke about projects that Amatola Water could get involved in and his access to National Treasury which may assist in financing such projects."

During the meeting, Mdekazi allegedly called Treasury's chief procurement officer, Willie Mathebula, and arranged a meeting between the three of them for the next day.

At that meeting, which was held at the Sheraton Hotel, Zitumane alleges: "Mr Mdekazi indicated that [Amatola Water] needs a budget for the projects and Mr Mathebula must ensure that such happens. Mr Mathebula was evasive but indicated that he will try."

Mdekazi issued a blanket denial of these claims.

Mathebula, however, confirmed such a meeting had taken place, although he had a different recollection of the subject matter.

"I don't recall us discussing a budget allocation request as my role as acting CPO had nothing to do with budget allocation. The CEO is well aware of the correct procedure for government budget process.

"What I remember is that she discussed with me the audit findings related to procurement processes that she wanted my advice on… I haven't seen both of them since that meeting."  

Zitumane says she became alarmed at Mdekazi's "high level of desperation that Amatola Water must get the funding".

The affidavit alleges Mdekazi began actively hawking sand water abstraction as a solution to the drought in the Eastern Cape.

She states: "Around October 2019, Mr Mdekazi indicated that there is a solution of sand water abstraction that the ministry has been patiently waiting for Lepelle Northern Water [LNW] to pilot, however, he [Mr Mdekazi] is frustrated with the chief executive [CE] of LNW as he is dragging his feet on the matter and he had advised the minister that the CE must be dismissed for not implementing the sand abstraction project, which is embarrassing the minister as Limpopo is a water scarce province.

"The statement shocked me as it meant he had powers to dismiss chief executives."

Zitumane says she "expressed a keen interest [in] the technology for the Eastern Cape which is affected by drought", but made it clear Amatola would have to rely on a pilot project in association with the Water Research Commission.

Mdekazi told amaBhungane: "The issue of EWS has long been entertained in the department since the time of former minister [Gugile] Nkwinti as it was promoted by the Water Research Commission and as such it is the Water Research Commission that introduced EWS already in April 2019. The idea that this was touted in a meeting in August 2019 is not correct."

He said it was Zitumane who had entered into an agreement with the WRC to explore various technologies for water source extraction.

Around the end of October, Amatola Water started piloting the technology at a beach site. She claims Mdekazi was following up on the progress almost weekly.

In February, a new Amatola board was appointed and soon afterwards, Zitumane says, the chairperson told her Sisulu was unhappy at the slow rollout of the technology.

She was later made aware of R230 million that would be allocated for drought relief.

The affidavit reads: "I cursed the day the allocation was made as I was already aware of the desperation of Mr Mdekazi for money."

Zitumane maintains there was pressure from the department to direct at least 60% of that budget to sand water abstraction and, therefore, to EWS, ostensibly the sole service provider able to implement the technology.

Mdekazi allegedly did not work alone. The affidavit claims Amatola Water deputy board chairperson Nkosinathi Geja took a hands-on approach to operational matters, involved himself in tenders, and appeared to be acting on instruction from Sisulu.

The affidavit suggests Geja was Mdekazi's anointed board member - the two are "homeboys" and Mdekazi had indicated before the board was appointed he had recommended Geja. ­

Geja declined to respond.

"If Vuyo [Zitumane] says there's something wrong that I did, she can take me to court," he told amaBhungane.

Mdekazi said: "The authority of the minister to appoint cannot be by law delegated. It is therefore mischievous to suggest that a ministerial power to appoint can be exercised by a ministerial adviser. The minister and/or her adviser cannot be responsible for the conduct of any board member in a board or at a board meeting."

Sisulu's office, according Zitumane's affidavit, also began making its power felt.

Zitumane says she was informed by the board chairperson the minister had ordered a halt to procurement processes and tender awards, which she took to be improper interference.

This decision was later withdrawn, but board members and staff in the department allegedly informed Zitumane about "unhappiness" within the department because she had not allocated 60% of the funding to sand water abstraction.

This, according to Zitumane's version of events, is when a witch hunt began, resulting in her suspension late last month pending an investigation and lifestyle audit.

In a letter to family and friends she wrote: "The investigation was not initiated by the board that I report to, but by the minister… I was warned of the pending investigation and reliably informed that my sin was not to allocate R138 million (60%) of the R230 million budget that was allocated to [Amatola Water] on 17 February 2020."  

In her affidavit, Zitumane claims: "The service provider appointed to conduct the aforementioned investigation and the lifestyle audit was effected directly by the minister… The minister acted unlawfully and exceeded her powers by appointing the service provider to investigate the affairs of [Amatola]."

A pattern?

Zitumane's affidavit echoes that of the chief executive of Lepelle Northern Water, Phineas Legodi.

Again, Mdekazi features as a central player, though it should be noted that Legodi is a highly controversial character himself.

He has been implicated by the Special Investigating Unit in a long-running controversy around the Giyani water project initiated by former water minister Nomvula Mokonyane, though he has so far beaten off attempts to remove him.

Legodi says Mdekazi invited him to a meeting with EWS' Bomela in August last year, where Bomela touted the sand abstraction technology.

This was the same month Mdekazi met with Zitumane.

Mdekazi told amaBhungane: "I can confirm that I had introduced the service provider to Mr Legodi in the normal course of a relationship between a service provider and government [as a stakeholder] after which I did not even sit nor did I have any interest in the discussions, I do not know what was discussed in that meeting."

Legodi states a month later, on 20 September, he received a directive from the department to the chairperson of his board which ordered Lepelle to test the sand abstraction technology. 

On 10 October, he applied to Treasury for permission to run a R600 000 pilot.

Legodi states before this could be implemented another letter from the department arrived indicating it was effectively directly contracting EWS.

A letter seen by amaBhungane shows on 29 October, EWS wrote to Sisulu proposing a project to supply five villages along the Mogalakwena River in Limpopo, which was followed up the next day with a quote totalling R45 million.

Proposal EWS 29 Oct 2019

Quote R42m EWS 30 Oct 19
The letter and quote seen by AmaBhungane. Image: Supplied

It is not clear whether this project went ahead, but Legodi states in his affidavit: "I submit that the rushed appointment of [EWS] goes against procurement laws and regulations… It is my further submission that Lepelle Northern Water was gagged [sic] into … this process as a result of the pressure exerted upon it."

Legodi claims that, also at around this time, he learnt from ministerial advisers plans were afoot to remove him because he was seen to be delaying the appointment of EWS. He alleges the drought was being used as a pretext to sidestep tender regulations.

Legodi has not been suspended, but the same company tasked with investigating and performing lifestyle audits at Amatola has been appointed to do a major investigation, including lifestyle audits, at Lepelle.

Legodi maintains the lifestyle audit is a complete departure from the mandate of the investigation, which is to look into whether Lepelle received money for the sand water abstraction project.

This, he claims, is intended to "harass and gag" him and other officials who are being punished for not appointing EWS.

He alleges the institution of the investigation by Sisulu was irregular and was done "to either deal with me for my refusal/delay in appointing the service provider … or to exert pressure over me so that I forever kowtow to their demands".

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit, produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB supporter, sign up for its newsletter or visit amaBhungane.org.

Read more on:    lindiwe sisulu  |  water
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