This is Episode 6. If you wish to read from the beginning, the posts are placed in reverse order here.
Written by Niki Moore, edited by Gudrun Kaiser ….. We are inching down the wormhole of progress, only to disappear into another pothole.
It was while I was pondering over my next avenue of investigation that I got a call from an indignant contractor for MTN. He shall remain nameless because MTN can be so unreasonable sometimes when it comes to people talking to the press.
“I don’t know anything about this,” he began, “and what I don’t know is that Mervyn Govender, who is the deputy head of department at the Disaster Management Unit, is invoicing contractors privately for work done by the municipality. And I’m not telling you this.”
“Wheeah?” I replied intelligently. “Do tell me more.”
So he explained that he was the chap with the tall ladder, who sent someone up to the top of the MTN ‘camera poles’ to attach the cellular antennae and then to connect the whole lot, via a green power box, to the city’s electrical grid.
“A municipal bakkie turned up on site a while ago,” he said, “and workers jumped off the back wearing blue municipal overalls, and did the work. I just assumed it was the city making the connections to the power grid, as they always do. I didn’t give it much thought.”
But he did get a surprise a few days later when he received an invoice for the job – from a private company. D&M Unified Solutions. Mervyn Govender’s company, in fact.
When he checked with his bosses at MTN, he was curtly told to shut up and just pay the damn bill. And in future he must use Mervyn Govender’s ‘company’ for all future connections. Oh, and stop asking pesky questions.
Being the type of person who would rather be the cause of the worry than the recipient, he decided to pass on this information to me.
I checked on the CIPRO database, and found that Mervyn Govender had set up a private company a few months earlier with his wife Dhanashree, and was indeed getting payment through this company into his private bank account. He was not cheap, either – at a charge of R28 000 per mast with no overheads, he would be making a few million ZAR under-the-table out of MTN’s ‘camera pole’ enterprise.
My brain did cartwheels of glee. At last I had something to run up the flagpole! This was so far beyond wrong that it would need to be examined through a telescope.
I wrapped up all of this information in an affidavit, added the very incriminating supporting documents, and then went to see Themba Tshabalala, then-Head of the City Integrity and Investigations Unit.
He read through the documentation and thanked me politely, assuring me that the City Integrity and Investigations Unit would take the matter very seriously. It would, however, take a few weeks for them to get back to me. Yes, yes, I had heard all this before, but – in a triumph of hope over experience – I was hoping this would be different. So for now I was content to stand back and wait, scanning the horizon periodically for the mushroom clouds.
A few days later, I got a call from Shaun Ryley, who was a ward councillor for the DA. Shaun had most helpfully been making an official pest of himself on my behalf.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” he began. “There’s a meeting of the Security Cluster in council, and I have managed to get the MTN project onto the agenda. They have asked Vincent Ngubane to attend and answer questions. It’s short notice, but can you be there? You’re not allowed to say anything, but you can watch and listen.”
My mind went ‘yippee!’ and clashed some cymbals. Of course I could!
“But would they allow me to attend?” I asked, a little doubtfully. I suspected I would be somewhat notorious in council circles. My usual tactic, which is to elbow my way in with a loud ‘Excuse me, let me in, I’m nosy’ might not work under these circumstances.
“There is a public gallery,” he replied. “They often don’t allow journalists, but we can smuggle you in. Just sit behind a pillar so no-one can see you.”
So, on 10 July 2017, I sidled into the council meeting room like a cat that has been away for a couple of days and hopes the food bowl is still full.
My first intimation that this would not go according to plan was when I discovered that wily old Vincent Ngubane was not going to attend the meeting. He had sent his apologies – some very urgent business that required his undivided attention elsewhere, of course – and so he sent in a written report, which was included in the agenda.
Shaun gave me his copy of the proceedings with the stern warning that it had to be returned at the end of the meeting and under no circumstances could it be removed from the council chamber. So I faked a visit to the ladies, snuck outside, and – dodging around pillars so that I would not be spotted – I photographed the pages with my phone.
I was cautiously exultant. The ‘report’ Ngubane had sent in was incoherent: so contradictory and convoluted that it would most likely meet itself around a corner coming the other way. I could not wait for this item to come up on the agenda.
But then I got a nasty shock.
Fawzia Peer, deputy mayor, head of the Security Cluster, Vincent Ngubane’s boss and chair of this particular council meeting, eventually introduced Item 7: the MTN project. There was a minute or so of silence while she scanned the report from Vincent Ngubane. Then there was another minute of silence while she read it again, this time thoughtfully.
She looked up at the delegates.
“There seems to be something wrong with this report,” she said. “There are things here that do not make sense.”
I tensed, waiting for the explosion. Which never came.
“I am withdrawing this report from the agenda,” she said.
And that was that. The bored delegates turned to the next item.
I caught Shaun’s eye and we quietly slipped out of the doors of the meeting room.
“I don’t believe it!” I said. I was vibrating with indignation. “What happens now?”
“I don’t know,” he said ruefully. “Probably nothing. I’ll try to get this item put back on the agenda, but I’m not hopeful.”
Fawzia had muttered something in her closing remarks about investigating the MTN issue, but I had heard that tune before – and it had only gone ‘do re mi so far’.
Oh well, I thought, there was still the complaint to the City Integrity and Investigations Unit.
So, feeling hopeful, I phoned a few days later to find out what was happening. Themba was not in.
“We investigated,” the secretary said, “and we placed Mervyn Govender on suspension, as there was clear evidence of wrong-doing. But then his boss ordered the suspension overturned and Mervyn Govender went back to work. We have been ordered to put the investigation on hold.”
‘And who is Mervyn Govender’s boss?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.
“Vincent Ngubane,” came the reply. “But please, don’t quote me. I am not allowed to talk to you.”
So I called back a few days later for the official response to my complaint.
Themba, while still cordial, was no longer friendly.
“We do not discuss our investigations with members of the public,’ he said.
And that, once again, was that.
There was an interesting little footnote: I later got a call from one of my informants in the municipality. An instruction had been issued that all branding on the masts, the mast sites, and any contractors’ vehicles must be removed. When I went to check, it was so: the MTN badges and name plates had gone. And after that, all the vehicles working on site were plain white.
The cover-up was complete … every single official avenue had ended in a cul-de-sac.
A few weeks ago I had felt as if Lady Luck had joined my team. Now I realised that she had instead bunked off for a smoke behind the bicycle sheds.
I needed another plan.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this series of articles are purely those of the writer, they are not endorsed by Safrea or any of its members.