Durban - The eThekwini Municipality has refused to be drawn on allegations by a suspended official that he was being used as a scapegoat after cancelling a high profile social cohesion conference at the last minute when it had been on the instruction of the city manager and the mayor.
The allegation was made by Thembinkosi Ngcobo - who is the head of parks, recreation and culture - in court papers in the Durban Labour Court in which he is seeking reinstatement.
But the city, in opposing his application, says "these allegations are not germane" to the proceedings and are still under investigation.
It argues that Ngcobo's suspension was lawful and, contrary to his assertions, he was not a "senior manager" reporting directly to the city manager and his suspension did not need the approval of council.
The cancellation of the conference on June 19, 2017, which was to be attended by 500 people and addressed by IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and others, received "embarrassing" media coverage.
In his affidavit, Ngcobo, who has been in the position for 14 years, claims he has been caught up in a "power struggle" and his suspension has impaired his dignity and reputation.
Attached to his affidavit are documents which purport to support his allegations that it was the Mayor Zandile Gumede who had insisted that the conference be cancelled.
He said the conference was aimed at creating awareness of different races, religions, communities and genders to help create growth and unity.
The full council had signed off on this year’s theme "Black History" and approved a R2.1m budget.
The conference had to be shifted to a June date because it clashed with a similar provincial conference.
On June 15, he received an SMS message from city manager Sipho Nzuza suggesting the conference be "withdrawn for a further date".
"I asked for an urgent meeting but Nzuza was not available until that Sunday, the day before the conference. We met at La Lucia mall at lunchtime. I told him that 500 people had been invited. We had incurred large costs for flights and accommodation. It had received widespread media coverage.
"He told me it was the mayor’s request. He did not know that it was such a big event and of the financial implications of cancelling it. He said he would revert back to me."
Ngcobo said he told Nzuza of a previous experience when he had been held liable when a service provider had cancelled a sponsorship and R200 000 had been added to his personal utility bill which had to be reversed. “I told him I did not want that to happen again. Nor did I wish to appear incompetent.”
Ngcobo said Nzuza had contacted him that evening and said the mayor was insistent that the conference be cancelled and she would speak to the service providers to reduce the financial implications.
He asked for this in writing. The following day his staff were upset when he told them about the cancellation.
He tried to contact the city’s head of communications to deal with the media but she could not be reached.
At 10:25, he received the letter confirming the instruction. "The very next day I received a call from a journalist saying I was to be suspended ...I ignored the rumours."
But on July 12, he received the notice of suspension informing him that he must present himself for a hearing on July 14.
The notice said his suspension was over the "late cancellation of the event", that he had placed the municipality into disrepute, resulting in wasteful expenditure because he had disregarded an instruction by the city manager to cancel the event on June 15.
Ngcobo said at the hearing he made representations but these were ignored, the outcome was predetermined, and he was suspended.
"I only received the instruction on Sunday night and the letter the following day. I have been caught up in a power struggle… there is a hidden agenda. They are trying to blame me for a catastrophe," he said.
In response, Dr Musa Gumede, who was deputy city manager of community and emergency services but who has since left the municipality, says he was Ngcobo’s direct boss.
He said Ngcobo had been given adequate time - 36 hours - to prepare for the hearing.
"His suspension is precautionary and finite and he is on full pay.
"The investigations are in the process of being conducted and ought to be finalised within a month."
Gumede said the allegations were "serious" and it was not in the interests of the investigation for Ngcobo to be at work because he is the head of the department and has "considerable power and influence” over his subordinates.
He said the application was flawed because Ngcobo was not deemed a "senior manager", and his recourse was to the bargaining council. The matter has been set down for argument next week.