Airports company finds itself in a cloak-and-dagger situation after a staff member is killed and a whistle-blower alleges the motive was to silence him
It took eight bullets to finally silence Absalom Njoni, the Airports Company SA (Acsa) employee working at OR Tambo International Airport.
He was killed last May in Tembisa amid allegations linking his death to entrenched corruption at the airport management company.
City Press has learnt from intelligence and security insiders with intimate knowledge of the case that this was the second attempt to eliminate Njoni.
Family members related the first attempt to Acsa executives, saying this had occurred about a month earlier.
Two “dodgy” men allegedly came looking for him at his home in the east of Johannesburg.
They knocked and he opened the door. They asked him if he was Absalom.
At the time, he probably realised that something about the men was wrong, and told them that Absalom was not at home.
Independent sources told City Press that a State Security Agency (SSA) team, led by a senior official whose name is known to City Press, had already been put together to uncover the real people behind the climate of fear at Acsa’s base at OR Tambo airport.
Given that OR Tambo International Airport was also a national key point, the security cluster’s National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure – which includes the SSA, military intelligence and police crime intelligence – was “activated” this year to coordinate security and law enforcement operations, City Press has learnt.
A report by City Press appeared online this week, revealing that smuggling drugs through OR Tambo was “easy as pie”.
In the report, a former police official said that everyone, from security guards to baggage handlers, was part of a network helping to smuggle drugs into the country.
So, what did Acsa do after Njoni’s murder?
Acsa chief operating officer Fundi Sithebe had been mentioned as the company’s point of contact with NatJoints, but the company declined a request for an interview with her.
Sithebe was also cited as head of an internal team that started interrogating contracts at Acsa – with the blessing of the board – and arranged for security of employees to be beefed up.
Acsa said “the company is satisfied that its security structures responded appropriately in the circumstances and that the necessary resources have been applied in terms of the personal safety and security of our employees”.
A company insider with intimate knowledge gave a chilling account of what appears to be a climate of terror permeating Acsa’s OR Tambo airport office – aimed at silencing those who want to clean up corruption.
Acsa’s executive committee had been sitting in a meeting at about lunchtime when news of Njoni’s killing reached them via his family.
“Njoni had just dropped off his kids at school earlier and was fatally shot,” said the mole.
A few days later, an anonymous whistle-blower at Acsa, known as Mr X, reached out to the company and provided what appeared to be evidence linking Njoni’s death to his work at Acsa.
In terms of the paperwork and information from Mr X, on the same day that Njoni died, he was apparently planning to terminate a certain contract with a service provider, whose name is known to City Press.
The person said a preliminary analysis of the information obtained from Mr X was escalated within the company, and a high level decision taken that security be prioritised for all company staff so that “nobody else must die.”
Acsa immediately went on an emergency procurement for security.
A preliminary probe revealed that the service provider had another contract with Acsa. Like the contract Njoni was dealing with, this one appeared to have been “awarded fraudulently”.
Both contracts were terminated during a later meeting with the service provider and a Zimbabwean companion.
For this particular meeting, Acsa had arranged for 30 bodyguards to be present “to show that the company is not playing games”.
City Press learnt that based on the preliminary facts available, Sithebe issued precautionary suspensions against some of the people involved in overseeing this contract and brought in forensic investigators.
On Friday, the Mail & Guardian newspaper reported that Sithebe had been accused of unfairly targeting people she did not like at Acsa for dismissal.
While a source told the publication that her real targets were not corrupt individuals, others said it was Sithebe who was being targeted “because she is fighting corruption in the organisation”.
THE ACCUSED SERVICE PROVIDER SPEAKS
The service provider, whose name is known to City Press, said that after Njoni was killed, his contract was “arbitrarily cancelled”.
The service provider said there were rumours that he knew something about the killing.
“There were rumours, but I did not bother about rumours. I had problems with the guy [Njoni], but the problems I had with him were on paper and were legal.
“It is things that I addressed in emails that were work-related. I did not know where he stayed, and I had no interest because we were not friends. We only met at work.”
He said that before Njoni died, the two had had a disagreement, whereby his workers were accused of being absent when this was not the case.
“I was frustrated at how we were being treated,” said the service provider.
“This included payments that were withheld.” He said he attended Njoni’s funeral even as rumours continued to circulate."
A week later, he said, he went to Acsa’s office for a meeting and on his arrival, found more than 100 bodyguards escorting him into the office.
This had left him shaken, he said.
There were bodyguards everywhere and it appeared as if the security service was anticipating dealing with an armed, hardened criminal, he said.
He said the meeting, attended by Acsa executives, took no longer than five minutes before it ended.
He said the executives told him that people were dying and Acsa staff could not work comfortably, so the two contracts were being terminated.
He was told that he had 21 days to make representations.
“If there is any investigation, it is fair for everyone to give me the benefit of the doubt and listen to my story, and maybe make a judgement from there,” he said.
Njoni’s brother, Naphuel Njoni said the family had been unhappy with the police investigation and, on January 19, the family made a formal complaint.
On Friday, they wrote a statement under oath related to the “slow progress on this case”.