Johannesburg - Top journalists are among 90 employees left in limbo after being lured to leave their jobs for an alleged bogus new TV channel.
The elaborate scam to swindle small businesses unravelled when some workers went for three months without pay and arrived at a studio with no equipment, after quitting their steady jobs at other media houses.
Channon Merricks, the owner of Vila Kasi Holdings, which was due to launch next month, is accused of not paying staff and contractors who have gone for months without payment and are owed thousands of rand.
He allegedly duped the unsuspecting workers by telling them that he had been awarded a new channel on the DStv MultiChoice platform to run a 24-hour news channel.
Former ANN7 news channel anchor Fahraaz Patel, who spoke on behalf of the workers, said the first group of employees started work in June, while the next group began this month.
Merricks and his channel were labelled a scam by Patel, adding that workers were conned by a “professional fraudster”.
“Vila Kasi is a company that is willing to con people. He, at this moment, is selling shares to the public. I don’t know whether these are ghost shares, but there is a feeling in me that he is selling ghost shares to the public. He might take all of this money and run off with it,” Patel said.
The Star called Merricks for comment, and he directed us to a Facebook video where he claims to have paid his workers, and that former “Gupta” employees had held him hostage and were causing chaos.
A statement on Vila Kasi’s Facebook page reads: “I don’t know any worker that has not received a salary for two months. Let those people show you or the union’s bank statements. We are launching August 1, 2018 so why does my competition want to know about equipment. So they can tamper with our equipment?”
Footage sent to The Star shows a heated confrontation between the “employees” and Merricks. He is seen accusing them of trespassing in his office and saying “the Guptas don’t want me to do my work”.
But former Generations actress and ANN7 news anchor Palesa Mocuminyane, who quit her job to join the new station, would have none of it. “We are not trespassing. We are workers. You employed us. You gave us contracts and you go on social media and you lie that you paid us,” she says in the video clip.
Another employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said she joined the company this month and they were told the station would go live on August 1. “We had pre-production meetings, and that was it. Since then we have not heard anything from management.”
Deeno Naidoo, who owns Blue Indian Pictures and was commissioned to do creative and technical work for Merricks, including the studio and attendant equipment installation, said he had gone more than 90 days without being paid an amount of more than R300 000.
Naidoo said he had all the necessary documents and also text conversations between him and Merricks, the contents of which were with his lawyers, where he was considering legal action.
“That’s what I planned to do (take legal action). Of course, I don’t want to get myself into heavy litigation fees if nothing is going to come out of this,” said Naidoo, who also called Merricks’ channel a scam.
His views were echoed by well-known communications specialists Trudy Mackay-Sekokotla and Tebogo Rametse, who both asserted that that Merricks “took us for a ride”.
Mackay-Sekokotla said she was tasked with being the project manager and to oversee a team of experts regarding the technical aspects, while Rametse had to put together a corporate identity and media policies, among others.
Both women were working together, and said they were owed over R150 000 by Merricks.
They expressed anger at turning down other forms of income over the past three months, where they couldn’t take other contracts due to their Vila Kasi commitments.
MultiChoice spokesperson Marietjie Groenewald said: “No new channel has been signed that is starting in August. We’re busy evaluating companies that submitted the bids. We’ll communicate the winning bidder before the Afro-Worldview contract expires in August.”
Merricks was involved in a feud with Afro-Worldview owner Mzwanele Manyi over employees in April. Vila Kasi accused Manyi of victimising workers who had been interviewed by the company for the new TV station.
Merricks is no stranger to controversy. In 2012, he was vindicated after the Johannesburg Specialised Commercial Crime Court found him not guilty of 28 counts of fraud.
He was taken to court after investors who put in at least R100000 each to fund his Soweto Focus Point project - a 2010 World Cup accommodation initiative - aimed at converting classrooms in Soweto, Port Elizabeth, Polokwane, Durban and Cape Town into backpacker lodges.
The project never materialised and Merricks could not pay back investors’ money that went down the drain when his company, Merricks Empowerment Consultants, was liquidated.