How Ekurhuleni planning chiefs covered their tracks after permitting illegal school opening.
South African Post Office chiefs are incensed following two secret forensic reports which, Noseweek can reveal, concluded that senior city planning officials in Gauteng’s Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality conspired to create “proof” that Registered Letters had been sent to residents fighting a controversial rezoning application.
Mzwandile Masina, former deputy trade minister, was elected executive mayor of the vast Ekurhuleni Metro on the strength of his vow to wipe out corruption and fraud within the council. After his inauguration speech following August’s municipal elections Masina declared that there were no existing claims of corruption against any officials and promised to set up an anti-corruption body to keep things that way.
When he made his “we’re clean” claim the new mayor was presumably unaware of the Post Office forensic report completed months earlier which highlighted “discrepancies to the municipality”. The report concluded that senior Metro staffers had conspired to breach the Post Office’s supposedly secure registered letter system in a cut-and-paste operation to create an official Post Office document. At the urging of a Post Office security chief, a Germiston resident has opened a fraud case against Ekurhuleni Metro at Kempton Park Police Station.
Post Office chiefs are intensely embarrassed by the breach, but CEO Mark Barnes declines to comment on Ekurhuleni Metro’s maverick actions or say what measures the Post Office is taking to close the loophole.
|The Dunamis Christian School|
The story starts with a bitter row between neighbours in once-tranquil Grace Avenue in the Germiston suburb of Lambton. Number 4 Grace Avenue, a spacious old-style property on a 2,000m2 stand, has been the home for 13 years of Ken and Dalene Ellingworth. Next door at number 2 is the Dunamis Christian School, part of a flourishing local empire controlled by a wheeler-dealing pastor named Dr Hendrik Bester.
The school’s main premises, for pupils up to grade 7, was previously established in nearby Piercy Avenue. Bester’s Dunamis International Family Church acquired the Grace Avenue former family home in 2014 as overspill premises for the younger grade 1-3s. The extended school opened on 14 January 2015.
Senior Pastor Bester and his administrator and security chief Pastor Jaco de Swardt aren’t known for their compliance with formalities. Their public health permit from the Metro’s health department was withdrawn in September when a site visit by officials revealed that what De Swardt had described as a (less scrutinised) child-care centre was a fully-fledged school.
Shortly after the overspill school opened, neighbour Ken Ellingworth, 63, who owns a business repairing garbage trucks, discovered that the new prefab block of four classrooms in the garden had been put up without planning permission. Worse, the erf on which the school stood was still zoned as residential. Dunamis Christian School was operating illegally.
On top of that, his wife’s daytime peace was disturbed by the ear-splitting din of up to 100 young children charging around the next-door garden in their twice-daily classroom breaks. Ellingworth and eight other local residents, mostly from the nearby Larnaca Palms townhouse complex, filed objections to the belated rezoning application lodged with Ekurhuleni Metro’s city planning department. The application was to be considered by a Metro development tribunal on 20 November 2015. Legally the Metro must give objectors 14 days advance notification of hearings – these notices routinely going out by registered letter.
But, claims Ken Ellingworth, no registered letters went out this time so that the objectors were unaware of the tribunal hearing. Ellingworth says City Planning only gave him the date in an email a week earlier when he called for the school to be closed until rezoning had taken place. After establishing that none of his eight fellow objectors had received their notifications, Ellingworth decided not to attend the tribunal hearing “on principle”.
The seven-strong Development Tribunal was chaired by DA councillor Shadow Shabangu. Seven Metro officials sat in attendance, including three from city planning: Development Tribunal head Gift Motsepe, Glyn Kelly and Yvonne van Deventer.
Tribunal minutes record that only one written submission, by Hareklea Markides, was read out “on behalf of the objectors”. The solitary objector, hailed from Larnaca Palms and, says Ken Ellingworth, her complaint was “pretty tepid”. Certainly nothing like his own lengthy submission which detailed a host of illegalities: no planning permission for the classroom block, the school having been running for 10 months before rezoning, offloading children on the public road etc.
Objectors may attend but not speak at development tribunals. Had they been present, the objecting nine could at least have ensured that their written submissions were ventilated. In their absence, rezoning consent for Bester’s little school went through on the nod – without even objections.
Ken Ellingworth was convinced planners deliberately omitted their objections – which is why they had faked “evidence” that the objectors were notified. And there was big money involved; by turning a blind eye, officials had allowed the school to operate illegally for 10 months – and rake in income of up to R2m.
If the objectors hadn’t received their registered letters it was all the fault of the Post Office, said Tribunal head Gift Motsepe. Ten days after the hearing Motsepe assured Ellingworth that all nine had been properly notified. “Unfortunately this office cannot be held liable for any misgivings [sic] by the Post Office,” he told Ellingworth.
Tribunal chair, Shadow Shabangu, a part-time councillor who draws a salary from the Metro, tells Noseweek: “All nine objectors were notified as per Township Ordinance via Post Office and we have proof of that, even though there is an objection with regards to the stamp from the Post Office.”
An objection re the stamp? Be patient. Read on.
Ellingworth demanded proof of registered letter posting. Eleven days after the tribunal hearing this was provided to him on the orders of Glyn Kelly by his colleague Yvonne van Deventer. It came in the form of an official Post Office list of registered letters on which the names and addresses of all nine objectors were listed by one Alicia of Ekurhuleni Metro. Each addressee had been allocated a tracking number and the list bore the PO’s date stamp: 30 October 2015.
But Ellingworth’s close scrutiny showed that lines on the form didn’t quite match up and the signature of the Post Office’s accepting officer, teller no 2, looked decidedly odd.
The following day saw Ellingworth at Kempton Park Post Office, where teller no 2 declared indignantly that the signature on the list was indeed not hers. The branch manager SE Booysen was called. Ms Booysen went off to consult the system, which showed the Metro had only brought one batch of registered letters to them that 30 October. And it wasn’t his.
The manager gave Ellingworth a copy of the list of registered letters concerning that unconnected batch, which had also been completed and signed by the same Alicia. Teller no 2 confirmed that this list did bear her genuine signature.
A shocked Booysen told Ellingworth that she was escalating the matter to the Post Office’s forensic department. She gave Ellingworth a letter confirming that the registered letter purportedly mailed to him (tracking number RC 094 719 368 ZA) had not been received in her Post Office for registered posting, as claimed by the Metro.
Armed with Booysen’s disclaimer, Ellingworth confronted city planning chiefs at their Kempton Park headquarters. At the meeting with officials Tshepiso Lentsoane, Gift Motsepe, Yvonne van Deventer and Glyn Kelly, he told them the matter could be easily resolved:
“Show me the original of the document,” he challenged. “There was a stunned silence,” recalls Ellingworth. “That was the end of the meeting.” (Planning officials later told the Metro’s internal audit department that the original could not be found.)
Ten days after the meeting Glyn Kelly emailed Ellingworth – again, it was all the fault of the Post Office. “The registered letters were in fact received by the Kempton Park Post Office on 30 October 2015, i.e. 22 days prior to the hearing date scheduled for 20 November 2015,” Kelly assured Ellingworth. “Unfortunately, this office cannot be held liable for any misgivings [That same odd phrase! – Ed.] by the Post Office and is furthermore not responsible as to how it manages its delivery of registered mail.”
Ekurhuleni Metro’s legal department pitched in too: “We maintain that the objectors were notified of the hearing,” Davey Frank, executive manager; corporate legal services, told Ellingworth’s attorney. “The notification letters were posted at the Kempton Park Office and receipt of the letters was acknowledged by the Kempton Park Post Office. This is evident from the stamp that appears on the list of registered letters.
“As the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality we confirm that we have complied with the 14 day notification period as stipulated in Section 131 (2) of the Town Planning and Townships Ordinance of 1986.”
But Post Office chiefs weren’t going to take this lying down. They ordered a forensic probe, which was conducted by Pieter Grobler, a veteran Post Office investigator in Security and Investigation Services. Grobler’s report (Ref. HD 2826505) concludes that the List of Registered Letters sent to Ken Ellingworth as proof of posting by Ekurhuleni Metro was a forgery.
Grobler also told Ellingworth: “No proof of posting could be found at Kempton Park Post Office. The item was not handed in over the counter. Discrepancies were found on the proof of posting by the municipality. These discrepancies were highlighted to the Municipality.”
In September, furious that Metro planners were blaming the Post Office for non-delivery of the registered letters, “Vossie” Vos, acting general manager of Post Office Security and Investigation Services, urged Ellingworth to lodge a fraud complaint with the police. Vos assured Ellingworth that his unit’s investigator, Pieter Grobler, would accompany him to the police station and submit a separate statement “as a witness to the forgery, uttering and fraud pertaining to the rezoning aspect”.
Ellingworth, escorted by Grobler, duly opened case No. 283/9/2016 against Ekurhuleni Metro Council at Kempton Park Police Station several days later.
Security chief Vossie Vos tells Noseweek that the Post Office regards the alleged forgery as “very serious”. He adds: “From our side we’ve done what we can do internally. The SAPS now needs to drive the process in terms of the alleged fraud by the municipality.” Vos says that names of individuals identified in Grobler’s forensic investigation have been provided to the police.
|Post Office CEO Mark Barnes|
Post Office CEO Mark Barnes declines to discuss the whole embarrassing business. “The Post Office Security and Investigation division conducted an internal investigation which uncovered sufficient information to warrant a police investigation,” says a statement from his Communication department. “Unfortunately we are not able to provide the media with the SAPO investigation report as this currently forms the basis of the SAPS investigation on the matter.”
A SAPS spokesperson says the case is under investigation by the Commercial Branch in Germiston. “No suspect has been arrested yet.”
As for the second secret forensic investigation, conducted by Ekurhuleni Metro’s own internal audit department, Noseweek has established that it also concludes the disputed List of Registered Letters is a forgery. Dirang Modimakwane, the senior forensic auditor who wrote report Ref. 025 FOR 15/16 says that his conclusion is supported by an external handwriting expert.
Noseweek emailed a copy of the disputed list to Ekurhuleni’s legal department and asked if Davey Frank, executive manager; corporate legal services, finally accepts it is a forgery. No response.
Today Dunamis Christian School (fees R2,200/month, R100 penalty if instalments not paid by the 2nd of the month), is in vibrant and full-decibel swing down in Grace Avenue, Germiston, although its colourful driving force, Snr Pastor Dr Hendrik Bester, is not available for interview.
Your fraud is in the post
The Post Office takes great pride in the security of its Registered Letters system. But Noseweek’s story demonstrates its vulnerability to fraud.
Ekurhuleni, the fourth-largest metropolitan municipality in the country, sprawls from Germiston in the west to Springs and Nigel in the east. It embraces OR Tambo international airport and is SA’s manufacturing hub.
Major customers, including corporations and bodies such as Ekurhuleni Metro, have mail rooms in which they are entrusted to make up their own batches of Registered Letter postings. For this the Post Office provides them with large rolls of duplicated tracking numbers and its official List of Registered Letters form for completion.
These bulk registered letter mailings, however, have no security until the dispatching customer deposits them at a Post Office and their accompanying List of Registered Letters is signed and date-stamped by the accepting officer. Only then do they enter the Post Office “stream” and become trackable – and safe.
Sensitive documents and valuables worth millions are annually entrusted to the SA Post Office’s Registered Letter system, on the utility’s guarantee of security.
The courts accept the official Registered Letter List as legal proof of posting. Now it emerges that, with a little cut-and-pasting, this “proof” isn’t worth the paper on which it appears.
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