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Corruption-accused state agency boss hires bodyguards after staff form ‘threatening’ WhatsApp group

2019-10-08 22:00

Bodyguards/protectors hired for boss accused of corruption, harassment and victimisation

Allegations of internal strife and victimisation appear to have overtaken the core mandate of developing small and commercial media at a statutory development agency where an acting chief executive officer (CEO) hired “a bodyguard” in fear of her own staff.

The Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) acting CEO, Zukiswa Potye, alleged that some disgruntled staff members had formed a WhatsApp group.

She was shown some “threatening” messages.

She said the reason she was being targeted was that she was stern and not allowing lawlessness in the organisation.

Potye further denied damning allegations against her and the MDDA in general contained in a “whistle-blower” letter to the presidency, which City Press has seen.

“This is a clarion call for urgent intervention at the MDDA,” the letter read.

“The basis for this call is to unroot maladministration, entrenched corruption, fraud, abuses on staff members and many other breaches of good governance that will be brought forth by an investigation.”

The bodyguards

Potye, acting CEO since April last year, confirmed the procurement of personal bodyguard services paid for by the MDDA.

“I will not call them bodyguards, but protection and it happened on three occasions. There is a WhatsApp group of MDDA employees called MDDA Compatriots and I got warned by others and went to open a case with the police when I felt my life was under threat,” she said.

Potye said a case was opened at the Hilbrow police station based on WhatsApp messages.

In addition, she said she had written a request to the State Security Agency to do a security assessment at the MDDA office, adding that they were also in the process of installing CCTV cameras around the building in a bid to bolster security.

Spokesperson for the MDDA, Cheryl Lanbridge, added: “The MDDA hired security services of one person for only a short period [three days in three different provinces] to accompany the acting CEO to external engagements in the course of her work, as a result of threatening messages she had received, leading the MDDA to believe there was a real threat to her physical safety. The decision was made so as not to allow these threatening messages to prevent the acting CEO from carrying out her duties in the interests of supporting the community media sector.”

Allegations

Meanwhile, in one of four grievances lodged by MDDA employees against Potye this year, one of the managers had written a memorandum to the board in May in which he listed several accusations against the acting CEO.

The manager said that when he escalated concerns of a KwaZulu-Natal radio forum to Potye, he has been accused of “being in a group that was threatening her life and told of her awareness that I was part of managers [sullying] her name”.

“She alienates and frustrates staff members that she does not like, spreads rumours through corridor gossip, and victimises and harasses anyone who dares disagree with her on anything. She flouts MDDA HR policies and the Labour Relations Act,” the memo read.

“Staff members have brought these issues to the attention of the board for resolution, but the board opted to stand with the acting CEO without investigating the root cause [of the complaints] or intervening to save the agency. This has made vulnerable those staff members who dared speak against her.”

Potye, however, maintained these complaints were part of a ploy to remove her because she had been firm and did not allow disorder under her leadership.

She said she was actually the one fighting any wrongdoing.

She believed that not everyone was happy that an MDDA project manager had been suspended in February after being linked to a radio station which had benefited from the MDDA, with traces of money from the same station leading to her.

“The project manager has since resigned. A case has been opened by the MDDA with the commercial crimes unit and the respective radio station has also opened a criminal case against the MDDA project manager,” Potye said.

She alleged that a minister had previously been involved in trying to get her removed from the MDDA.

The minister had made a call for her withdrawal and even met a union in a bid to ensure that happened, but had not succeeded.

Whistle-blower and acting CEO’s versions

The whistle-blower’s letter claimed that there was evidence of excessive amounts being swindled through the hiring of unnecessary equipment and that hotel rooms had been booked, but never occupied for a summit organised by the MDDA.

But in an interview with City Press, Potye said she had also questioned why a screen had cost the MDDA R140 000 and not R60 000.

In another instance, both the whistle-blower and Potye had raised the same concerns about similar issues involving slightly different amounts.

“The MDDA continues to pay R1.7 million to install broadcast equipment when it was brought to the attention of the board that the equipment was worth no more that R500 000,” the whistle-blower’s letter said.

Potye said she had questioned “why we were paying more than R1 million for broadcast equipment that could cost R200 000 … and, in one instance, R1.9 million for what could cost R600 000”.

Funding model under scrutiny

“I questioned the criteria used by the project manager in selecting 10 projects and forwarding them to the board. At that time, we had had a backlog since 2010 and the list before selection is hidden from the board,” Potye said.

“This manager would choose a project for the board to approve using a criterion we did not know. I went to the lady responsible for the project tracking system… I wanted to ensure that qualifying and deserving projects got selected, but we found that some of the 10 projects were not qualifying.”

Potye said it was at this time that she went out benchmarking and found that other institutions had funding policies.

She said work then started on drafting a funding policy which the MDDA now has “for the first time in 15 years”, after it was approved by the board in July.

“The policy contains clear segregation of powers because we can’t have one person selecting projects, taking them to the board and writing letters to the chief financial officer for funding. That is one person doing everything. Now we start afresh, [with a] new process which is about transparency, fairness and equity,” she said.

Potye said small and commercial media in need of funding could now apply, while those that were on the backlog list need to reapply by Monday, October 7.

Instability at the MDDA

Deputy minister of planning, monitoring and evaluation, Thembi Siweya, said she was “aware of challenges that relate to the non-appointment of critical positions to the administration due to a moratorium that was placed on the filling of vacancies”.

“There is no governance stability when you only have five board members. The ministry has started the process of filling the vacancies in the board to ensure that the board is always fully functional and operating,” she said, adding that the CEO position was in the process of being filled.

Siweya said she was also “aware that there were many forensic reports performed by different boards into the former CEOs of the MDDA. In due course, after engaging with the board and the former ministers, we will announce measures we will be undertaking to implement their recommendations.”


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October 13 2019