Lindiwe Sisulu, the minister of human settlements, water and sanitation, this week moved to distance herself from a memorandum firing her national rapid-response task team (NRRTT), which, if it is proved to be legitimate, could have disastrous consequences for her political career.
In an April 15 memorandum Sisulu says that she had “kept quiet”, despite being aware that members of the task team — appointed by her at a cost of R13-million a year — had been illegally raising money from entities under the department to bankroll her campaign for the ANC presidency in 2022, without her approval.
The assertion by Sisulu that she failed to act on the information she had at her disposal may have serious implications for her, particularly in her campaign to become ANC president at its next elective conference.
Earlier this year, the Mail & Guardian and other newspapers reported on the allegations that the team was appointed to run — and bankroll — her 2022 campaign. Sisulu’s media team deflected the allegations as a bid to remove her from the party presidential race by her rivals, including the deputy president, David Mabuza.
The memorandum is understood to have been drafted by senior departmental staff on the instruction of Sisulu’s controversial aide, Mphumzi Mdekazi, and signed by her, before it was issued to the task team’s members. According to sources in the department, the letter was issued after a fall-out between Mdekazi and members of the task team as a result of their investigations into corruption at two water boards falling under the department. The letter was later “withdrawn”.
It was leaked to some journalists, together with copies of affidavits by two water board executives that implicate Mdekazi, Sisulu’s aide in her previous ministerial deployments at international relations and human settlements, in alleged attempts to siphon off millions to cover his debts from bankrolling Sisulu’s failed campaign for the ANC presidency in 2017.
However, Polela said that any directive to the task team’s members would have been issued to them in their individual capacities, because they had been employed as individuals, and not as a team. Furthermore, such communication would have been issued by the director general of the department, and not by the minister, he said.
“Members of an entity are not employed as a group. They are employed individually. This is also the case when contracts are terminated. This has not happened and so, the NRRTT continues doing its work,” Polela said. “As for the authenticity of the memo, I cannot comment on a document that the department has not furnished to the media, as that would be affirming a leaked document.”
Task team’s mandate
The task team was employed by Sisulu after she moved to human settlements, ostensibly to co-ordinate delivery of water, sewerage and housing services around the country. Each of those responsibilities come with a crisis — there is a massive housing backlog, sewage is flowing into rivers and about 21-million people don’t have regular access to clean water. Solving these issues would also be crucial ahead of local government elections.
However, the team included a number of people who were part of the minister’s 2017 campaign, sparking allegations that it was focused on running her campaign for the ANC presidency in 2022.
The apparent axing of the advisory team also comes against the backdrop of complaints to the presidency from the boards that the task team was attempting to bankroll Sisulu’s political campaign at the taxpayers’ expense.
At the weekend, Sisulu axed the interim Amatola Water Board and placed it under administration — and announced that she planned to do the same with the Lepelle Northern Water Board. These water boards are crucial structures in the sector, bringing different users together to try to ensure that water is equitably shared. But few work as they are intended to, and they have been mired in corruption.
The chief executives of both boards had earlier blown the whistle on Mdekazi, accusing him of political interference and corruption, and laying charges against him in terms of anti-corruption legislation.
Claims of ‘fake news’
Sisulu also issued a statement warning about “fake news” being circulated about her department.
In the memorandum, Sisulu said she had been forced by the conduct of members of the team to shut it down with immediate effect.
She said that she had appointed the task team based on its “strength and capabilities” and had believed its members would do their jobs without resorting to any form of corruption.
However, it had come to her attention in recent months that “some people within the collective” wanted to “tarnish the image of the minister” and had joined the task team to “pursue their business interest[s] and easy wealth accumulation at the expense of the good cause”.
Sisulu said she “deliberately kept quiet” when she realised that “some” task teams members were purporting to be driving a campaign for her to become ANC president in 2022.
“These [activities] were done without the knowledge of myself as the minister. The people who were involved in these activities went around the length and breadth of our country soliciting deals and getting financial support, purportedly either on behalf of the minister and or the campaign,” she said.
“It was clear that this has now become another animal, not the NRRTT that I know.”
Sisulu added: “I am deeply hurt and angered by the collapse of the ethics, discipline and code of good governance within the NRRTT.”
As a result, she said: “After careful consideration of all these factors, and others that have been brought to my attention by various individuals and law enforcement agencies, I came to the conclusion that I must, with immediate effect disband, the NRRTT.”
She said it was clear that the task team had outlived its mandate and that it would be closed down with immediate effect. Members would be expected to deliver a closing report of their work and would be paid for April and May.
Sisulu said she was contemplating laying criminal charges against some of the task team members over their conduct. Her office would communicate the decision to the department and its structures.
Democratic Alliance MP Emma Powell said Sisulu’s axing of the boards appeared to be a pre-emptive measure sparked by the charges laid by the chief executives.
“These are pre-emptive measures designed to place the ministry on the front foot and nullify the bona fide and incredibly serious allegations contained in the affidavits of the chief executives of both the water boards concerned,” she said.
Powell said she would report the matter to the public protector and to Parliament.
“We further commend the bravery of all whistle-blowers and send our encouragement to officials whose images are deliberately tarnished as a result of their attempts to expose government maleficence,” Powell said.