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‘We were threatened’: Varsity bosses who paid millions for dodgy invoices

2018-08-02 14:22

University of Mpumalanga vice-chancellor, Thoko Mayekiso, who has been accused of running the institution as her personal fiefdom, ignored legal advice not to pay a suspicious R4.2 million invoice from a catering company.

After letting finance executive, Kevin Pather, pay the R4.2 million to Mathata General Trading, she also allowed payment of another R1.7 million to Magma Inc Attorneys – the law firm she had appointed to investigate the questionable invoice.

Magma Inc Attorneys was paid for doing no work because Mayekiso and Pather abandoned the probe after receiving a text message threatening to expose them.

The law firm’s owner, Magale Masemola, confirmed to City Press that when he was hired to advise the university on how to terminate Mathata General Trading’s contract in April 2017, he picked up some discrepancies with the company’s invoices and suggested that the R4.2 million invoice not be paid until a forensic investigation was conducted.

Mathata General Trading’s contract was terminated following a dispute when the university decided to use a new system, Intellicard, in order to manage and control students’ access to the dining hall.

According to this system, students book meals and swipe their cards to gain access to meals.

The company took the university to court when its contract was terminated, but its attempt to overturn the decision failed.

“It’s true that I was paid even though I did not do the forensic audit because the university had decided to pay Mathata when I was already appointed,” Masemola said.

Masemola also confirmed that the threatening text message was sent to Pather, who then forwarded it to Mayekiso.

Both officials then contacted Masemola for advice.

Although the cellphone number that transmitted the text message was unknown to them, they still immediately processed Mathata General Trading’s invoice.

The message, sent on April 11 2017, read: “Chief, you have until tomorrow to pay for catering services rendered. This is not NMU [Nelson Mandela University, where both Pather and Mayekiso used to work]. Or else you and your vice-chancellor will regret the day you set foot here. Your name and family will be all over the local print media and SABC as well as students protest against your appointment and corruption. Dare us.”

Masemola then advised Mayekiso via text: “Why don’t you reply to SMS saying as follows, ‘We have received the SMS regarding payment. We deal with various catering providers and we are not sure which one you represent and we owe a few of them.’ In this way we can unmask them! If they don’t respond then you have no clue who to pay! If they reply then you request them to verify their banking details to further unmask them!

“I bet they will not put themselves in the corner. That way they can’t manifest their threats! Because if you pay Mathata for monies they may not be entitled to, how do you intend on accounting to stakeholders such as DHE [Higher Education Department] that funds you, and you still have to pay us for what we were to bill you on account of breach. Regards, Masemola.”

University spokesperson, Themba Manana, said that the management committee resolved to pay Mathata after divisional managers confirmed that goods and services were provided.

Asked whether Pather and Mayekiso felt threatened by the text message and decided to abandon the forensic investigation and pay Mathata, Manana said: “[The management committee] had resolved to pay Mathata after the necessary signatories were obtained from the divisional managers to confirm that goods and services were provided and the reconciliation was performed by the finance division. The invoice contained services that were provided in February, March and April.”

About paying Magma, Manana responded: “The work did commence though it was not concluded. The resources were invested by Magma and they claimed as per the agreement.”

The university is now facing another claim from Magma for an unpaid R14 million after the company drafted policies for the university.

The university has been outsourcing legal work because it has not yet established its own legal department.

Masemola said Mayekiso refused to pay all the money after his firm had produced voluminous pages of policies, and suggested that he claimed it in small amounts.

He served the university with papers when it failed to pay his first installment of R4.7 million by the end of June.

Manana said Magma was not paid because the cost of its work was too high.

“The work has been referred to professional cost consultants for review. This was communicated to Magma,” Manana said.

He could not say if the university would defend Magma’s demand.

“The university is exercising its professional discretion on this matter,” Manana said.

Manana said the university allowed Magma to do the job on the pretext that invoices would be reasonable in terms of the professional scales.

More troubles

Mayekiso is under siege and in a precarious position at the university.

She has not only been branded as corrupt and running down the institution but also as a Xhosa tribalist who gives jobs to people from the Eastern Cape.

A document was distributed by anonymous individuals at the university, which alleged that Mayekiso:

• Influenced the appointment of staff because she sat in on the shortlisting of job applicants, interviews and final appointments for junior officials – effectively wresting the power of department directors; and

• Headhunted Pather to his current position despite allegations of covering up R200 000 bursary fraud during his previous employment at the Nelson Mandela University, where he was audit and risk senior manager in 2014. Pather was moved to the institutional planning department when the scandal broke.

The allegations that Mayekiso took over the powers of departmental managers were amplified by a complaint that deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Rachmond Howard, wrote on June 15.

“There’s no protocol with regards to line management at [the university]. [Mayekiso] gives direct instruction to people who work in my division … Some of these instructions have financial implications, which I am requested to validate,” Howard wrote.

“My staff are involved in tender processes for services and goods for my division without my knowledge and consent and yet the appointed service providers [for example security and catering] are managed by me and I have to process payments.”

Deputy vice-chancellor for academics, Professor Ric Bernard, denied all the allegations against Mayekiso. Responding as acting vice-chancellor, Bernard said: “Our governance processes are audited on a yearly basis by independent firm of auditors, and human resources issues are critical in these audits.”

Regarding Pather’s appointment, Bernard said the university investigated the allegations against Pather at Nelson Mandela University and he was cleared.

“UMP conducted a thorough reference check on [Pather] prior to his appointment to the position, and one of the references received was from the former vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela University, Professor Derrick Swartz. Under his leadership the investigation was conducted. Professor Swartz gave a glowing reference for Mr Pather, and this was supported by Mr Pather’s professional qualification of being a chartered accountant,” Bernard said.

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September 23 2018