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Durban - Lawyers appointed by the Department of Transport have spent virtually all of the R7.6 million budget of the commission of inquiry into the deaths of eight Road Traffic Inspectorate recruits in December.
The office of the premier has now almost doubled the budget and extended the sitting for three months, at an eventual cost of nearly R14m.
Lawyers for the Department of Transport have raced through more than two thirds of the budget, racking up bills of over R1.5m a month.
Among the most outlandish of the bills is that of a senior advocate, who charged the department R6 000 to pick up a witness from the airport.
Seven job-seekers – Lindokhule Kunene, Sibisi Ntuthuko, Lungile Wambi, Bongani Mbatha, Lenny Nxumalo, Xolani Gumede and Sibonakaliso Mhlanga – died during a fitness test in sweltering heat at Harry Gwala Stadium in Pietermaritzburg on December 27 and 28. The eighth, Sanele Ngcobo, allegedly slit his throat after failing the test. About 15 000 people applied for 90 posts.
The commission was established in April to investigate whether appropriate planning was made for the recruitment process and enough medical resources were deployed.
Ultimately, it would result in finding whether any government employee contributed to the deaths or injuries.
The deaths prompted an outcry from families and the public, forcing the provincial Transport Department to suspend the programme.
Chaired by advocate Thandi Norman, commission members include the Anglican Church’s Reverend Rubin Phillip and advocate Thandanani Sihle Innocent Mthembu, with Sithembiso Kunene as an evidence leader and Bongekile Zulu an investigator. A source within the department, who could not be named, said the legal team was smiling all the way to the bank.
“These guys are charging massive amounts and are the only ones benefiting from this process. With bills of nearly R2m, the amount set aside for the commission is on the verge of depletion, and this does not include the cost of the commissioners, evidence leaders and investigators,” the source said.
The Sunday Tribune has seen invoices from the department’s appointed team, as well as of advocates commissioned to act on their behalf.
Among the bills is that of senior council Ravi Padayachee, who slapped the department with an invoice of nearly R900 000 for two weeks’ work.
A month earlier, he submitted an invoice for more than R1 million.
In his breakdown, he lists picking up commission witness Tim Noakes from King Shaka International Airport for R6 000.
The premier’s spokesman, Ndabezinhle Sibiya, confirmed the money allotted to the commission had been exhausted and an extra R5.7m would be needed.
“Cabinet approved the extension from October until March next year. This is on the basis that during this time the commission is restricted to 22 days sitting for the hearing of evidence and 30 days for the commissioners to write a report,” he said.
“While the government of KZN believes the commission must be allowed to carry out its responsibilities without interference, it is important to provide this information for transparency on the way we conduct affairs of the state,” he said.
Sibiya did not reveal how much commissioners, evidence leaders and investigators were being paid.
Department of Transport spokesman Kwanele Ncalane said the office of the premier was dealing with the issue.
DA leader in the legislature Radley Keys said Transport MEC Willies Mchunu was throwing money at a flimsy case.
“This is spending on defending the indefensible – his department went headlong into a flawed selection process that resulted in the deaths of at least eight applicants. It is an established fact that there (were) insufficient planning and resources for the participants to be safely tested.
“The MEC should have initiated an internal investigation to root out those who planned the selection process without due regard for human life and removed them from office and had them criminally charged, and resigned to take responsibility for the disaster,” he said.
IFP chairwoman Blessed Gwala described the spending as excessive. “This is just too much. There is a need for an investigation into the deaths of the eight recruits and we still need an explanation as to how this was allowed to happen.
“In the wake of the tragedy we called for an independent investigation, but spending so many millions is wasteful.”
Public Service Accountability Monitor spokesman Paul Hoffman said the purpose of the inquiry had been overshadowed by mounting legal costs that were of little benefit to those who lost loved ones.
“It is not the function of senior counsel to fetch witnesses from airports; nor is the fee of R6 000 charged for doing so justified.
“The purpose of a commission of inquiry is to establish facts and serve as an instrument of policy-making in relation to the facts established.”
What the lawyers are charging:
* Assisting advocate Padayachee in drafting and settling a statement – R4 800.
* Travelling to Ladysmith and Estcourt to take two witness statements – R12 000.
* Preparing a bundle of documents – R4 800.
* Working with advocates Ramdas and Padayachee in finalising a report – R12 000.
* Consulting the advocates and later meeting a doctor at Grey’s Hospital – R12 000.
* Incorporating documents into a bundle – R6 000.
* Attending commission of inquiry for hearing – R12 000.
* Studying transcripts of evidence R4 800.
* Consultation with advocate Padayachee, issuing doctors with statements and travelling to Durban to take a statement – R15 200.
* Assisting advocate Padayachee with a letter and settling a memorandum of evidence – R9 600.
* Advocate Ramdas’s invoice – R458 969.95.
* Advocate Padayachee’s invoice – R1 008 587.04.
What other commissions cost:
The commission is not the first to come under fire for racking up huge costs with little result.
In 2005 a commission of inquiry into the efficacy of the police force was established, also at a cost of R10m. Headed by advocate Stix Madlala, the inquiry failed to produce a final report.
In 2002 the Jali Commission into maladministration and corruption in the prison system was established, at an initial cost of R12m. This doubled.