Tourism DG accused of abusing his power

Three Directors at the Department of Tourism have asked the Public Protector’s office to investigate their Director General, Victor Tharage (pictured), for ‘failing in his duties and abuse of power and state resources’. Picture: Supplied

Three Directors at the Department of Tourism have asked the Public Protector’s office to investigate their Director General, Victor Tharage (pictured), for ‘failing in his duties and abuse of power and state resources’. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 2, 2024


THREE directors at the Department of Tourism have requested the Public Protector to investigate their boss, who is the Director General, for “abuse of power and failing in his duties”.

The Director of Domestic Tourism Facilitation in the Branch Tourism Sector Support Services Programme, Lerato Matlakala, Administration Director Mbali Zama, and Director of Planning and Support Jonga Kuhlane, all based at Tourism House in the capital Pretoria, wrote a complaint to Advocate Kholeka Gcaleka asking her office to probe Victor Tharage for “failing in his duties and abuse of power and state resources”.

The three complainants were at one stage in the Domestic Tourism Management under the Chief Directorate Social Responsibility Implementation responsible for implementing the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP).

In the letter sent to Gcaleka in March, the trio stated that their responsibilities entailed ensuring that tourism infrastructure and training projects were planned, implemented, and reported on, in line with the approved Business Plans and Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) signed with various service providers nationwide.

The complaint stated, “On or about October 2, 2019, Ms. Lerato Matlakala (Chief Director – SRI), Mr. Jonga Kuhlane (Director Planning) and Ms. Mbali Zama (Director Systems) were placed on precautionary suspension to facilitate investigations relating to alleged gross mismanagement in relation to expenditure in the Department, stemming from the Auditor General’s 2019 Report that reflected a negative variance in expenditure in the Department, which was deemed to be fruitless and wasteful expenditure.

“When the three officials were suspended in October 2019 after the Department received a qualified audit from the Auditor General, Thulani Sibeko was not suspended. However, around January/February 2020, Mr. Sibeko, together with the other three suspended officials, namely, Ms. Lerato Matlakala, Mr. JongaKuhlane and Ms. Mbali Zama were subjected to a forensic investigation and met with forensic investigators from Sizwe Ntshaluba-Gobodo & Grant Thornton.

“The forensic company was employed by the Department to probe these projects as a number of them had not been completed and/or handed over to their rightful beneficiaries during the time the 2018/2019 AG Audit was done.

“The suspensions of the three colleagues previously lapsed and were uplifted only after 73 days, on January 21, 2020, and they were allowed to return to work. This is after the union (Nehawu) intervention. The suspensions in these circumstances were procedurally unfair and substantively unfair and uncalled for and were conducted in a procedurally unfair way; the negative impact of the suspension remained with and affected the complainants.”

In the letter to Gcaleka, the trio stated that following their suspicion that the department was looking for people to apportion blame to for the failures in decision-making and constant investigation of the programmes that were not yielding results, they approached Irene Rome Attorneys who advised them to send a letter to the then erstwhile minister of Tourism, in April 2020, to inform him “about some of the issues we felt were being swept under the carpet” since the inception of the programme.

“No response to this letter was received by the Attorney; instead, around September 4, 2020, we received notices to attend disciplinary hearings from the then Corporate Services Chief Director, Advocate Albert Mafanele, and our hearings were scheduled for different dates.

“On September 14, 2020, Thulani Sibeko received a letter from Advocate Albert Mafanele (signed by the Director General) informing me of the provisional withdrawal of the said notice to attend the disciplinary hearing.

“On or around 19 October 2020, we were again issued with new notices to attend disciplinary hearings and asked to avail ourselves towards the end of October 2020, as the previous ones were withdrawn.

“Different chairpersons were procured for these cases. Charges were also issued to three deputy directors who worked or are still working in the Working for Tourism programme (previously SRI). The Department also appointed lawyers to represent the employer in these disciplinary hearings,” read the letter.

The trio alleged that the department allegedly unsuccessfully failed in its attempt to recuse the chair of the disciplinary hearing after it emerged that other employees facing similar charges had had their charges dropped.

“The Department decided to abandon the disciplinary hearing processes against us without even informing its own appointed chairpersons, who were paid substantial amounts, and it will be good for the Public Protector to seek this information as large sums of money have been wasted pursuing unwinnable cases,” read the letter.

Among other areas to probe, the trio pleaded with the Public Protector’s office to investigate Tharage for “suspending officials willy-nilly and for refusing to provide requested documents for disciplinary cases”.

They highlighted the following issues:

“Unfair, discourteous or other improper conduct – not treating all officials the same (even ensured that the then Deputy Director General takes early retirement to avoid accountability).

“Undue delay – disciplinary cases that were instituted on or around October 2020.

“Decisions taken by the authorities – (Minister of Tourism and the Public Service Commission) did not fully investigate our grievance as per Grievance Procedure for Senior Managers outlined in the SMS Handbook.

“Maladministration – funds spent on legal fees in abandoned cases as well as other irregular expenses emanating efforts to cover up the accounting officer’s failure to play his part in the projects that ultimately failed.”

In a letter seen by the publication, the Public Protector’s office confirmed receipt of the letter and said that it was paying attention to the matter.

“The Public Protector will conduct an assessment of your complaint to determine whether the Public Protector has a mandate to investigate the allegation or allegations as contained in your complaint,” read the Public Protector’s letter to the complainants.

When approached for comment, Tharage said he would not comment as doing so would have material implications for the internal and external investigation process currently underway.

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