The newly-appointed acting CEO of the Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (Prasa), Cromet Molepo, was facing disciplinary proceedings for bugging telephones — including that of a senior shop steward — when he resigned as the head of Umgeni Water.
Molepo’s suspension was announced by then board chairperson Professor Omar Latiff in September 2001 following a damning report into his conduct by Pietermaritzburg attorney Julian von Klemperer, who was tasked by the board to investigate the phone tapping allegations.
Molepo then put in his resignation, effective from November that year.
The “bugging” scandal received widespread publicity at the time.
Responding to an inquiry from The Witness about the scandal, Molepo has pointed out that he was never criminally charged and said all of it “remains just allegations”.
He said he had approached the Pretoria high court in an attempt to clear his name but could not pursue the case because the costs became unaffordable.
According to Molepo, he resigned from Umgeni Water in 2001 “because the situation had become untenable after meeting the former chairperson”.
In his report, which The Witness has seen, Von Klemperer found that the telephones of three people — two former employees and the shop steward — were bugged on the instructions of Molepo.
He also criticised Molepo for being obstructive during his investigation and said that his efforts to get information about alleged apparent irregularities while Molepo was working at Eskom (prior to Umgeni Water) had been blocked by him.
Von Klemperer described the situation at Umgeni Water under Molepo’s leadership as being riven with factions and distrust.
In summary, he found that the buggings were arranged by a former army operative, on the instructions of Molepo, and were physically carried out at exchanges in Hilton, Howick and Clermont by Telkom employees.
At the time there was an investigation by Umgeni into financial outsourcing to another company, Specialised Outsourcing Limited (SOL), and possible links to certain past and present employees.
Payments — totalling R51 000 — for the illegal surveillance were made through an attorney’s office in order to conceal them.
When the attorney discovered the truth, he withdrew his services and blew the whistle.
Those whose telephones were tapped were Nehawu shop steward Themba Mthembu, Guy Burnett, an employee of Umgeni who was on suspension because of an alleged conflict of interest over SOL, and Brian Walford, who was Molepo’s predecessor.
Included in the evidence he had were actual tapes from the tapping and one of a conversation between Molepo and the former “operative”, Sibusiso Mncube.
A transcription of the conversation discloses that Mncube tells Molepo that the Burnett and Walford tapes are available to be collected and Molepo says that the payment must be done through a legal firm so that it can appear to be costs of the SOL investigation.
Molepo, in an interview with Von Klemperer, denied any knowledge of the tapping but admitted the conversation. He claimed invoices were not issued because of the “danger of leaks”.
He claimed he was just “playing along” during the conversation because, at the time, he believed he and others were being targeted in a smear campaign and he was trying to flush out the leaks.
Von Klemperer ruled that the recordings of the other conversations could never be justified.
Burnett’s conversation with Walford focussed on pending litigation, four taped conversations from Walford’s phone including a call from a journalist, and of the calls recorded “in poor quality” from Themba Mthembu’s phone. Only one featured Mthembu himself. The other calls were made by or to his wife.
One employee interviewed, who was tasked with preparing a list of names, addresses, ID numbers and telephone numbers for the “company searches”, said at one stage he became suspicious and shared his concerns with Latiff, who had “laughed off his fears and asked how a man of the Bible [Mr Molepo] could do such a thing”.
Interviewed by Von Klemperer, Latiff (who has since died), said every time the issue of the bugging had been raised with Molepo, he had flatly denied it and said it was just a disinformation campaign.
Asked if he persisted with his claim that he was a victim — and not the other way round — Molepo said: “My actions ensured an end to the SOL contract and prevented the payment of R82 million claimed in March 2000 and the ones that followed.”
Molepo asked for more time to give more detailed answers and The Witness will afford him a right of reply at that time.
Shami Harichunder, Umgeni Water’s corporate stakeholder manager, confirmed that Molepo left the organisation in the third quarter of 2001 “but additional details are in the archives which are not available at this time because staff are on leave”.