This is Episode 5. If you wish to read from the beginning, the posts are placed in reverse order here.
Written by Niki Moore, edited by Gudrun Kaiser ….. In this episode, the dirty laundry starts to bob to the surface, like a mattress in the Dead Sea.
My research into Ethekwini official Vincent Ngubane – MTN’s ‘uncle in the municipal business’ – began on a rather startling note. By sheer chance I went to a dinner party where I sat next to a well-known investigative journalist who also moonlights as a private investigator. After the usual chit-chat, I remarked idly:
“Would you by any chance know of a municipal official by the name of Vincent Ngubane?”
He paled visibly.
“Please don’t ask me to investigate him,” he begged. “That guy is bad news.”
Well, the comment dropped a portcullis over that avenue of conversation. I was left wondering – I had already done some online research into the man, and it was not the information I found that was revealing, but rather the lack of it. This chap kept a sub-atomic profile.
What was he doing that made him so scary?
All I had found was a rape charge dating back to 2000, and an involvement in a scandal in 2017, when reflective jackets that were meant for a scholar patrol got re-routed instead to ANC marshalls. But there was nothing there that would cause a buzz in a courtroom.
Going a bit deeper, I found a more promising story from 2015: Ngubane had been investigated for supply chain management fraud in the neighbourhood of R50 million.
Now that’s a respectable neighbourhood, so I phoned the journalist who had written the story.
“The documentation was damning,” she told me. “There was a paper trail that was conclusive. Make no mistake, this was large-scale theft and fraud. It was supposed to be an open-and-shut investigation. But somehow … nothing happened. The papers were all handed over to the City Manager, the mayor and the police, but the investigation died. It was also supposed to go to the Public Protector, but we don’t know if it did. The whistleblower resigned and had to go into hiding, she was afraid for her life.”
My attempts to contact the whistleblower or get any information from the municipality about the investigation were about as helpful as the g in lasagna. She seemed to have fled the country and no-one in the municipality would talk. Without the key witness, the investigation had collapsed.
With that avenue of investigation closed, I turned off onto a half-hidden side road and put the word out to my less salubrious contacts – did anyone know anything that would explain Vincent Ngubane’s role in this MTN befuddlement?
It did not take long for an undercover investigator to contact me. It seemed that I was not the only one who was puzzled by Ngubane’s Teflon coating. The contact suggested that I should take a closer look at the CCTV camera tender – the very one that had been used as the excuse for the MTN project.
So I did.
The multi-million-rand tender for installing this really, really sophisticated equipment onto eThekwini’s ‘camera poles’ had been awarded in 2016 to a shelf company* called Brandfin 110. Brandfin had one sole director, one Alastair Mingay, who lived in Pietermaritzburg and whose entire previous work experience in surveillance technology had been as a sales rep for Nashua. The company website looked like it was cobbled together from bits and pieces cut and pasted from the internet. A list of previous clients included extremely tangential companies. His BEE credentials were based on a fund designed to ‘improve young Black women’, but which had never disbursed a cent (… I asked).
Furthermore, the company was embroiled in a bitter court case. I spoke to the disgruntled litigants, and found a couple of people so angry that they were twanging like guitar strings.
It appeared that Brandfin had got the tender, but had simply subcontracted all the work (after taking a plump middleman’s fee) over to a company in Port Elizabeth called Cloudline that owned the rights to the software. Unfortunately, Mingay’s alleged inexperience meant that he had supposedly botched the specs for the tender, thereby rendering it unimplementable. The PE company was suing him for breach of contract, while he retaliated with accusations of non-performance.
The details are complicated enough to set a person’s brain on fire. However, the broad upshot was that the money had been paid over to Brandfin, yet the required surveillance was as visible as the headwaiter when you’re wanting your bill.
I phoned Alastair Mingay. At first he was extremely cordial and informative, but once I started pressing him to deal with the contradictions in his story, he became abusive and hung up.
Then I started following up the status of the camera installations. I discovered that a) none were working and b) they were the wrong cameras for the job in the first place. Also, the prices quoted in the tender were ten times what the same cameras actually cost in the shops. The entire expensive project had, really, come to nothing.
Despite the fact that his first strike at getting cameras up on MTN’s ‘camera poles’ had failed to ignite, Ngubane – nothing daunted – had decided to have another stab at it. The tender was re-advertised in 2018, but it had now bellied out to be worth a quarter-of-a-billion rand.
Inevitably, the contract was awarded to yet another newly-created company: this time a freshly-minted wholly-owned subsidiary of EOH Holdings … once again with a single director who lived in Boksburg. He seemed to have even less experience in the surveillance technology field than Alastair Mingay.
I was not able to speak to this director, however. A few days after the tender was awarded, EOH imploded with an embarrassed little hiccup after revelations of corruption-with-extreme-prejudice. Everyone at EOH disappeared into their burrows like meerkats spotting a snake.
I was not too sure where to go from here.
Gloomily, I considered my options.
There were several different ingredients in this unholy hash. On a macro, cloudy-with-isolated-thunderstorms-level, there was the palpable atmosphere of dread in the municipality, which prevented anyone from explaining what was going on. It was not only the overall feeling that anyone who got on the wrong side of Vincent Ngubane did not need to take a packed lunch to work, it was deeper and more organic than that.
Added to that was the barefaced fact that MTN had managed unilaterally to build a couple of hundred structures on state-owned property with not one single official – apparently – noticing.
In the general cash-register ka-ching of confusion, one little incident also threw up a card: an unfortunate resident in Glenmore, who lived 10 metres from one of these new cell masts, had registered a mild protest when the massive concrete pole had arrived at his front gate. He had gone out to speak to the workmen to find out why he had suddenly acquired a 35-metre-high garden decoration, when a Metro policeman arrived and threatened to re-arrange his features if he continued to kick up a fuss. The policeman had claimed he was acting on behalf of Vincent Ngubane, who had greenlighted the whole thing, and that this was municipal property despite the MTN badge on it.
So, according to every single official document we had been able to extract, those cell masts should never have been built. And – according to official replies – they had never been built … which failed to explain why they were there.
To someone not directly affected by these structures, this might sound like a storm in the proverbial teacup, but if something this glaring and in-your-face was allowed to happen – and the major role players clearly thought they could get away with it – what else was going on? We all knew that Durban had become the gold standard for municipal corruption, but maybe it was worse than we thought.
There is nothing so frustrating as being laden with the suspicion that you don’t know what you’re suspicious of. On the general principle that everyone is guilty of at least something, I wondered which direction I should go next.
And then I got a breakthrough – a stroke of luck. Two events that seemed to be a move in the right direction. This would bring things to the boil, I thought at the time.
I had no idea that things were about to get worse.
* A shelf company is an empty company. It is just a registered company name, which can then be bought ‘off the shelf’ and used for any purpose where a company profile is required – especially when it is necessary to make it look as if the company has an apparent history and track record.
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