Durban - KwaZulu-Natal health boss Dr Sibongile Zungu has admitted to racking up a R310 000 cellphone call and data bill while abroad, but on Thursday fought calls for her dismissal.
With a month to go before her five-year contract expires – the embattled head of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health said she had not been told yet if it would be renewed – Zungu sought to refute claims of wasteful expenditure, maladministration and corruption.
Calling for her head, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) said it would march to Premier Senzo Mchunu’s office next month and would even roll out a month of protest action if Zungu’s contract was renewed.
The union’s provincial chairwoman, Thabile Nkosi, said the R310 662 incurred by Zungu on the department cellphone in April last year was the last straw.
The amount was unjustifiable and irresponsible and the department’s silence on the matter for more than a year was concerning, she said at a media briefing at the union’s Durban offices on Thursday.
“That is why we have escalated this to the premier.”
Zungu told the Daily News she had been stung by network roaming charges over three weeks while on an overseas trip last year.
But she emphasised that she had been “working the whole time – the amount of work I did during that period will tell you”.
She said she had suggested to information technology staff that her phone be switched off roaming during her overseas travels.
“They sent me a note from the service provider showing you how to switch off data, e-mails and automatic updates,” she said.
“I also suggested leaving the phone (at home) when I travel, but the department said not being able to get hold of me would be a problem.”
Zungu said she took this as an understanding on the part of the department as to how and why the steep amount had been incurred.
Reading a statement on the campaign for Zungu’s dismissal, Nkosi said Nehawu had written to Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo demanding an investigation into allegations of maladministration, corruption and wasteful expenditure.
But three weeks after the letter had been sent, there was not even an acknowledgement that it had been received, she said.
The alleged corruption related to tenders. Nkosi accused Zungu of “interfering” with procurement processes and claimed the department’s chief financial officer, Mashaka Ravhura, was suspended because he refused to approve unlawful and corrupt activities, including the suspension of the supply chain manager, Andile Zondo.
Ravhura and Zondo were suspended late last year after allegations of corruption surfaced.
Nkosi claimed “good managers” had left the department for better opportunities elsewhere and also to get away from Zungu’s alleged “bullying and harassment”.
However, Zungu said she was surprised by the allegations because the two managers had been suspended on different charges.
“This was after a forensic investigation and… they will have an opportunity to give their side of the story during the process of disciplinary action,” she said.
On Nehawu’s claim of wasteful expenditure in hiring attorneys for internal departmental disciplinary hearings, Zungu said although a Public Service and Co-ordinating Bargaining Council resolution prohibited this, case law permitted it under certain circumstances.
“Organised labour has taken this matter up with the Department of Public Service and Administration, which found that the department had not erred.”
Zungu dismissed claims that the department’s labour relations officers were sitting idle because of outside firms being contracted to prosecute disciplinary cases.
“The nature of some of these cases is complex, so attorneys are used,” she said.
“We have just calculated that the department will recover over R300 million from employees found guilty of misconduct and misdirecting funds.”
The union also wanted Zungu’s management of resources, including public funds, to be investigated.
Although Zungu said she could not fully respond to these allegations in the absence of details, she pointed to what she described as some of her successes as head of department.
“When I came here in 2009, overspending amounted to R2.3 billion. I have stabilised the finances of the department and implemented a plan around financial management.”
Zungu said some of the claims being made against her, including that she was only concerned about her “pride and status”, were a personal attack on her.
Nkosi also claimed the department’s management was floundering and had lost control in all spheres of administration, including emergency and forensic pathology services.
This, said Nkosi, suggested the department was in a state of “paralysis”.
Zungu said those issues were never put to her.
Responding to the claim that she had been avoiding a meeting with the union since 2011, Zungu said that two months ago, Nehawu leaders had held a meet with her.
“We discussed a matter, which was resolved amicably,” she said.
Said Zungu: “Their call for my dismissal seems to be seasonal. As far as I can recall, this time last year they were saying the same thing. I don’t know why they are doing this. Perhaps they have their own preferred candidate for the job.”