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Durban - Just six months into his job as head of the corruption-busting Special Investigation Unit (SIU), Durban advocate Vas Soni is facing a countrywide revolt by staff who accuse him of closing investigations and running the unit like a “spaza shop”.
Some, including forensic investigators, are unhappy with the way the unit is being run and have helped compile a dossier of complaints against him. He is also facing a formal motion of no-confidence by Cape staff.
Soni yesterday denied the claims against him (see below).
The SIU said Soni had been tackling performance and quality, for which he had received “quite severe criticism” from stakeholders.
The complaints were in internal National Education and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) memoranda by the four SIU regions (Durban, Cape Town, East London and Pretoria) over the past month.
The Daily News has seen the memorandums. The central fear seems to be that Soni wants to centralise investigations in Pretoria. This, they said, would lead to redundancies and retrenchment, and have a detrimental affect on cases.
A KwaZulu-Natal investigator who spoke to the Daily News on condition on anonymity, said most of the cases under investigation in the province required staff to travel long distances.
“It does not make any sense for us to be based in Pretoria when there is so much to do here in KZN. It means that we will have to live in Pretoria and come to work in KZN, which does not make any financial sense,” he said.
“The sad reality is that if we move to Pretoria a lot of our work in this province will stop altogether.”
Complainants also claim that Soni wants to shut ongoing probes into corruption involving the government’s land reform programme and social security fraud.
The Daily News recently reported that the SIU was probing more than R100 million worth of land reform deals in KZN that allegedly benefited crooked officials.
It was also probing government officials who had created ghost beneficiaries to collect social grants.
“There are investigators who are at an advance stage in investigations and now they are being told to stop those investigations. Nobody knows why,” the source said.
Soni was appointed in October following the sudden resignation of Judge Willem Heath.
The SIU was established by the Presidency in 2001 to investigate maladministration and corruption in the public sector and to institute civil proceedings to recover losses.
The SIU’s spokesman, Boy Ndala, said the unit management was aware of the memoranda. He said some had been addressed to Soni, but none of the authors were willing to sign them.
Ndala said workplace grievances needed to go through appropriate channels and it was not in interests of the public, or institutions such as the SIU, that forums such as the CCMA were bypassed.
In a letter circulated among Nehawu members, KZN investigators took aim at Soni:
“The SIU has lost direction and leadership in the position occupied by the owner of the spaza shop who has shown us nothing but autocracy and dictatorship.”
They claimed that the KZN office was in “shambles” because of poor management.
Pretoria investigators claimed the SIU was racked by low morale, leading to the exodus of seven senior managers and six staff members in four months.
“These were the anchors of this organisation since the unit’s inception... These members are now dazed, suffocating and in disbelief on the scary wave of tsunami the unit is currently under.”
Cape Town staff drafted a no-confidence motion last month, saying they could no longer watch the SIU being run into the ground.
“We have come to the unavoidable realisation that the SIU stands on the brink of what is sure to become the downward spiral to its end,” the document read.
The SIU has responded in detail to allegations by its staff, saying its head, Vas Soni, was under fire because he has been addressing issues affecting unit performance.
On concerns over centralisation of investigations in Pretoria, spokesman Boy Ndala said some senior staff worked at the unit’s head office and others in the regional offices.
“Two problems have been created. First, staff, and especially senior staff members, are spread across the country. They have to be flown from the centres in which they reside to other centres, accommodated there and required to work in-between regular trips back home.
“This is economically indefensible: travel and accommodation costs alone run into millions of rand a year. And, the lost worker hours are also costly,” Ndala said.
“Second, it is difficult to exercise proper oversight of work done in the regions. ...We point out that effective oversight has come sharply into focus more recently.
“Staff have been made aware of serious reservations expressed about the work of the SIU and especially that the investigations appear to be never ending.
“...To deal with this twin problem, the head has indicated that he is mindful of centralising the SIU’s operations so that all, if not most, senior personnel are based at our head office,” he said.
On retrenchments, he said it was indefensible for the SIU to employ personnel in centres where their services were not required:
“At present, most of our work is concentrated in the Pretoria area. However, there is little work in some of the regional offices.
“Either the staff members there are left to be idle there or costly operations of flying them to, and accommodating them in, regions where they may be required is undertaken.
“No responsible head of the SIU should allow this...to continue.”
On closing some cases, Ndala said the SIU had been criticised for taking long to finalise probes.
“The investigations into Land Reform and Social Security fraud have been long-running. There a general realisation in the SIU and the (relevant) departments that these must be brought to an end,” he said.
“The matter has been extensively debated in the SIU and the general consensus is that those investigations no longer require the specialised skills possessed by the SIU, and that, having regard to the gains and recoveries being made, the costs of the SIU’s continued involvement in those investigations is not justified.
On complaints about Soni’s management style and allegedly running the unit like a “spaza shop”, Ndala said it was difficult to respond to allegations of such a vague and general nature.
“The response of the Head is as follows: In the absence of details, the best he can do is issue a general denial of the allegations.
Ndala said the head would not be fulfilling his statutory responsibilities were he to ignore the adverse observations relating to the quality of the unit’s work and the time it took to finalise investigations.
“To that end, he has set strict timetables within which investigations are to be finalised and reports drafted.