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Questions over junior eThekwini staff ‘taking the blame’ in R17m housing projects probe

The front façade of the Durban City Hall building.

The municipality said six officials were issued with letters of intent to suspend while others were suspended after it uncovered a fraudulent scheme in which R17m was paid to two companies. File Picture: Zanele Zulu African News Agency (ANA)

Published Oct 19, 2023


Durban - The eThekwini Municipality has been accused of “scapegoating” junior officials after it issued them with letters of intention to suspend in connection with fraudulent and irregular “payments” to service providers amounting to R17 million.

At least six officials in the City’s housing unit have been issued with the letters, and were expected to respond by yesterday on why they should not be suspended. The officials in the firing line include three clerks, and project managers from different regions.

The municipality had said earlier this week that six officials were issued with letters of intent to suspend while others were suspended after it uncovered an elaborate fraudulent scheme in which R17m was paid to two companies.

Leaders from the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu) who are representing the six affected workers, have questioned whether these employees were being scapegoated to protect senior staff members. The letters were issued on the same day that The Mercury reported that millions of rand meant for low-cost housing projects had “disappeared”.

The City said the fraudulent transactions related to three housing projects in uMlazi T-Section, eMaphephetheni and in KwaMakhutha.

A municipal employee, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said: “We understand that the staff members in the finance unit had been suspended, but they are now back.

All the workers who have been suspended (or got letters of intent) are junior staff. Where are the senior managers who would have signed off on the transfers?”

The source added that the stolen money said to have been transferred consisted of varying amounts, adding that it was not the entire R17m in one go, but millions of rand per transaction.

“It is highly questionable that a junior clerk and project manager could transfer such amounts alone as is alleged. Where are their managers who would have signed off, as such a transaction would have been required to be signed off all the way to the deputy head of department at least?

“One of the things that we are learning is that documents relating to these transactions cannot be found, those that are being located, the people who are supposed to have signed off on them, are denying that they ever signed.

“We know that some of the people who are under threat of suspension have been receiving threats to keep quiet.”

Questions were also raised about the letters of intent to suspend.

“They are identical, all six of them, except for the name and the job title, and are not explicit on the allegations that the employee is supposed to have committed,” said the staff member.

The Mercury has seen at least two of these letters, and they do not spell out the role that each employee is supposed to have played in the alleged fraud.

The letters, titled “Precautionary suspension – immediate vacating of premises”, state: “It is alleged that you contravened clause 1.2.5 of the Disciplinary Code Collective Agreement when you failed to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity in that fictitious payments were made to an unknown service provider.”

The letter goes on to express the concern that the employee could interfere with the investigation or interfere with witnesses or commit further acts of misconduct or endanger municipal property or tamper with evidence.

It states that the municipality intends to suspend the employee on full remuneration pending the conclusion of the investigation, however the employee had an opportunity to submit written representation on why they should not be suspended.

Sibusiso Mkhwanazi, the Imatu shop steward in the Human Settlements unit, who spoke on behalf of the affected workers, said the workers had been surprised by the letters.

“Some are struggling to cope after they were issued with letters of intention to suspend them. These workers were alerted about three weeks ago that there was an issue and were asked to produce reports about what may have transpired, and on Friday last week they were issued letters of intention to suspend them. There is no investigation that has been done,” said Mkhwanazi.

He added that a clerk had no powers to approve the payment of large sums of money.

“For an amount from R2 million up, the head has to sign off. For this process to have been fair, the acting deputy city manager should have suspended the head, the deputy head should have been suspended, and senior managers. How do you start at the bottom?”

Imatu leader in eThekwini, Queen Mbatha, said it was the employer’s prerogative in the matters of staff discipline.

“As Imatu, we will fully represent our members and we believe that they are innocent until proven guilty. The media statements that have fully labelled the members as corrupt even before the matter is fully investigated are regretted,” she said.

The Mercury yesterday sent the municipality 11 questions regarding the suspensions, including of senior staff members, and the status of the investigation.

In response, the municipality said: “This matter is currently under investigation. Therefore we cannot provide any comment. A statement will be issued once the investigation has been finalised.”