How Mohlaleng Media brought the ANC message to Nelson Mandela Bay: “Break the rules and don’t pay the bills”.
While in ANC hands, the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro council ran what was, effectively, a secret procurement wing that circumvented the open tender process, did party political work on the city’s tab – and, ultimately, did not pay debts run up with local service providers.
These are among charges currently being investigated by the city’s new DA-led coalition government. The charges are corroborated by a tranche of emails (obtained by Noseweek) sent and received by former mayor Danny Jordaan’s office, as well as by interviews with people who, wittingly or not, took part in swindling the city out of an alleged R21 million, over 23 months.
In October 2014 the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro awarded a three-year communications tender to an entity called Mohlaleng Media. Mohlaleng became the vehicle to circumvent the Public Finance Management Act, which is designed to protect public money by putting onerous checks and balances in place, such as a requirement to obtain at least three quotes, or advertise an open tender, for any purchase or service contract above a minimum amount. The ANC-run council appears to have turned a blind eye to what was going on, possibly even openly encouraging the swindle.
According to a September 2016 news report in local paper The Herald, city manager Johann Mettler confirmed that Mohlaleng’s initial three-year R10 million cap had been lifted. The company had been paid R20.6 million, and the motivation for the cap lift was because “more directorates wanted to make use of this service provider”.
On 7 September 2016 the coalition government, installed by vote and party negotiation the previous August, froze the tender, claiming it had “all the hallmarks of an irregular contract”.
The owner of Mohlaleng Media is Sandown smart guy Mbuso Thabethe, married to former TV soapie actress Sarah Ngubani. They count among their friends “sushi king” Kenny Kunene. Their wedding was celebrated on the pages of You magazine.
Mohlaleng would supply anything and everything, from overalls to meals and transport, to hosting and managing city events. The company wrote the city’s internal newsletter, did their printing, supplied corporate gifts and arranged accommodation.
Mohlaleng was also responsible for hiring Grant Pascoe, a former DA Cape Town chairperson, who has since joined the ANC, and Vukile Pokwana, a former journalist turned PR hack, to work in the mayor’s office as political advisors and spin-doctors to Jordaan.
They billed by the hour for their services, via Mohlaleng, and over a five month period cost the city R771,552.
This cosy relationship between Mohlaleng and Jordaan meant that complaints by local businesses over non-payment were ignored.
By July 2016, Mohlaleng owed local small businesses in excess of R756,973, for goods and services procured on the council’s behalf. Several have still not been paid, and those that have had to obtain court judgments.
Iqbal Sain of Bukani Print, who was leading a loosely formed “forum” of businessmen owed money by Mohlaleng, emailed their complaints to Jordaan on 15 July. Bukani was then owed R232,852. (They’re still owed R30,000, despite a court order to enforce payment of the debt.)
Sain’s email reads, in part: “We have been reliably informed that Mohlaleng Media have received payments from [the metro]. [We need you to] urgently address this matter, seeing that Mohlaleng Media have no intention to rectify the situation. The situation has adversely affected some businesses who have been forced to retrench some staff members. As a last resort we will have no alternative but to report this matter to the media which would place the city and its leadership in a bad light on the eve of the local government elections.”
Previous emails sent by Sain had been ignored. It was the threat of public disclosure 16 days before the local election that prompted a response. Noseweek was told that Kupido Baron, onetime spokesperson for Jordaan, and still a senior official in the metro’s communications department, frantically contacted Thabethe to get him to commit to a payment plan, and then convinced the forum not to go public.
But they weren’t paid.
By contrast, the salaries of Pascoe and Pokwana were “fast-tracked” when it became common knowledge that Jordaan had lost the metro. On 4 August 2016, one day after the election, Jordaan’s PA Ayesha Hoffman emailed Baron to “please assist in approving payment of R192,888” noting it was “the salary for Grant and Vukile [titled as] Executive Mayor’s coordinators”.
Two days later, with political change imminent, Hoffman asked Regina Maseti in the finance department to “fast track the [salary] payment to Mohlaleng”.
Sain’s business partner Alan Taylor confirmed that the printing jobs they did on Mohlaleng’s numerous 11th hour requests included printing paraphernalia with ANC branding, such as the ANC 2016 Manifesto Launch held at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in April 2016.
“I’ve been told you should always be wary of doing business with an African guy who wears pointy shoes and this guy [Thabethe], when he visited, wore pointy shoes,” quipped Taylor.
“These were such slippery characters – they slid up and flew down. They once sent us a fake proof of payment in order for us to release goods. We printed some political stuff for them. Some had ANC insignia but a lot just had the ANC colours for municipal events,” said Taylor.
Sharon Viljoen said Mohlaleng contracted her to source 100 orange overalls for municipal workers, and was still waiting for her outstanding R38,000.
“They have no intention of paying. Small businesses like mine battle to recover from a loss like that. I had to retrench three people,” said Viljoen.
Jerome Smith of Adhoc Productions, which provided photography and video services, said he had little option but to go through the courts to claw back his R150,000 fee.
“I met with Mbuso at the Boardwalk Hotel in about May 2016. Now Mbuso – he smelt like money. His suit jacket cost more than my entire outfit. He blamed everyone except his poor leadership. Mbuso made promises but I didn’t trust him,” said Smith.
Smith said that in September 2016 when The Herald ran a story that Mohlaleng had been paid nearly R21 million he emailed Johann Mettler to intervene. But the city manager simply told him: “NMBM is not contractually bound to your company or any of the other Mohlaleng services providers. Please direct your queries to Mohlaleng.”
Reza Ebrahim, former local GM of Mohlaleng, declined to speak to Noseweek. However, Noseweek has learnt that Ebrahim joined Mohlaleng in March 2015 and left in April 2016 over money he was owed, damage to his reputation – and because his wife’s company, Phoenix Consulting, was (and is still) owed R120,000 by Mohlaleng.
In September 2016 Thabethe told The Herald that the city has “never been billed for anything that does not relate” to the metro, and that the contract did not fund political activity. The appointment of Pascoe and Pokwana, he said, was to plug a gap in the communications department created by a suspension. He added that “many of the service providers have already received part-payments” and “we value our supply partners and service providers immensely, and it has never been our intention for this situation to occur”.
“We are working on a plan on how and when exactly payment will be achieved,” said Thabethe.
Johann Mettler would not answer questions related to the Mohlaleng investigation, other than to say it would be completed by October or November.
Thabethe’s Johannesburg office was contacted for comment, without response from Thabethe. Nor were cell and landline numbers linked to Thabethe answered.
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