Bheki Mashile's Letter from Umjindi

Gone phishing

In the US, there is a classic saying, “only in America” –usually exclaimed about a stroke of luck and made more famous by the likes of boxing promoter Don King, who is accused of defrauding numerous boxers over the years, including Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

So it would be appropriate if Umjindi’s own fraud accused, Paul Mpele, were to borrow that saying and exclaim triumphantly, “Only in South Africa!” following his highly questionable appointment as the municipality’s Chief Financial Officer. Mpele is under criminal investigation for various alleged acts of fraud and “other illegal activities” while he held the same position at the Thaba Chweu (Lydenburg) Local Municipality– from which he resigned in 2009.

Paul Mpele

Mpele was arrested by the Hawks on 15 October. He and three co-accused appeared in the Nelspruit Magistrate’s Court the following day to face charges of fraud relating to the alleged theft of R3.2 million from the Thaba Chweu Municipality. (Various more-or-less reliable sources inform me that the alleged theft was committed through internet banking, via staff pin numbers, over the Easter weekend in 2009.)

Mpele was released on R10,000 bail while two of his co-accused were released on R5,000 bail and the third with a warning. They are Kgabo Moloto (internal auditor), Connie Mabuza (former deputy director of budget and treasury) and Elvis Magange (chief credit controller).

Sources say Mpele’s 2009 resignation was nothing more than an attempt to escape investigation. The sources also say that Mpele and his cronies dabbled in “anything they could get their hands on – like the sale of municipal land, with 95 stands sold to a private buyer”.

Despite the cloud hanging over him, Mpele was first appointed as Umjindi’s CFO then promoted to acting Municipal Manager (MM), an appointment that prompted the Umjindi Ratepayers Association to question the “appointment of an inexperienced temporary MM”.

MM Mpele then appointed deputy CFO Christo van der Westhuizen, as acting CFO – against regulations, since Van der Westhuizen is not qualified: he only has matric.  That (acting) appointment has been reported to the national Treasury which has deployed an official to clean up the municipality’s mess.

Just how did Mpele secure the Umjindi CFO appointment in the first place? It seems the interview panel – which included Advocate Hugh Mbatha, Municipal Manager of Enhlanzeni District Municipality – knew at the time that Mpele was under investigation and they asked him about it during the interview.

Reportedly, his response was to insist he’d been framed. Moreover, he is also reported to have said: “I have people looking out for me.”

While numerous attempts to get comment from Mbatha were unsuccessful, the million-dollar question remains: how could a legal professional recommend someone for appointment to such a crucial position who is being investigated for misconduct allegedly committed while holding a similar position in his previous place of employment?

The Mpumalanga branch of the ANC Youth League (or a faction of it) strongly objected to Mpele’s being considered for the post. Vigorous objections were also raised by Umjindi’s DA councillors during the council’s ratification proceedings.

But Mpele – although reportedly not the top-scoring candidate – was the one recommended by the interview panel, and council ratified his appointment because of that.

“As far as we can see, his recommendation is mysterious,” said a member of the Umjindi branch of the SA Municipal Workers Union.

Professionals this journo spoke to say that Mpele’s B.Com (UKZN) and the eight-month municipal financial development programme he attended at the University of Pretoria hardly qualify him for such a senior position.

“The commerce degree is too vague. And the eight-month programme could maybe qualify him to be a clerk in the CFO’s office but certainly not as the CFO,” said a professional who frequently provides consulting services to the provincial government.

Protestors raise vigorous objections to Paul Mpele's appointment

A senior director is required to have several competencies including leadership skills; strategic planning; knowledge of supply chain; municipal financial management; project implementation; and service delivery.

The Treasury has set municipalities a deadline of January 1 next year for all directors to provide proof of having the required skills. Umjindi Municipality asked for an extension but, say my sources, this was denied.

However, later a municipal official called to deny they were denied an extension. Pending confirmation from the Treasury, I’ll stick with my sources.

Mpele, whose appointment is seen as nothing more than a political deployment, has been removed as acting MM since his arrest.

Mashaba and council Speaker, Vusi Mkhatshwa, “ran away” from answering questions about Mpele’s appointment.

And in response to this mess municipal workers have taken to the streets and dumped sewage around the municipal buildings. It was disgusting. The message is clear: either Mpele goes or the workers are determined to, well, cause shit.

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