Daily Maverick

Phumla Williams: Fighting the State Capture monster from within

Acting GCIS head Phumla Williams at Zondo Commission (Live stream frame grab)

The boss gets fired, you land up with Mzwanele Manyi and then Faith Muthambi swans in, insisting on being addressed as “Honourable Minister” all the time.

Five years ago, when the Guptas were exposed for allegedly trying to bribe former South African Airways CEO Vuyisile Kona with R500,000, someone close to the action dismissed the unfolding drama and referred to Kona as a “squealer”.

Like Kona had violated some kind of secret code. Or perhaps, insiders back then knew that many others were okay with being “summoned” and were happily following the Gupta orders in exchange for those bags of cash.

But the first few days of the State Capture inquiry have shown that although the Guptas had their way with public servants from the highest office in the land down to the NPA, the Hawks and the “NIA” – expect Eskom, Transnet and Denel to feature down the line – there were a few good men and women who stood their ground, at great risk and personal personal cost.

On Friday, testimony to the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture by Phumla Williams, the government spokesperson and acting head of the the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) showed how rough life was for those who were regarded as obstructionist by insisting on due process when confronted with questionable orders.

With the exception of a very short spell in 2014 she has been the government spokeswoman and acting Director-General of GCIS since 2012.

That is six years and counting because she has been entrusted with the actual job, but not the title or the promotion, especially after the Gupta brigade arrived on the scene.

Enter Mzwanele Manyi

Williams revealed details of the day her predecessor, Themba Maseko, called a meeting in early 2011 where he told them, out of the blue, that he was leaving.

Previously, his testimony showed that he was being shafted over his unwillingness to comply with Saxonwold instructions.

We were shocked, didn’t see it coming.” It made no sense, so Williams walked over to his office afterwards and found him, head slumped over his desk. She knew he was in no state to talk to her then.

The moment he left we were told Mr Manyi was in the basement.”

Parking had to be sorted out.

Mzwanele Manyi, the man who would later acquire the Gupta media company through a bizarre vendor financing deal, stepped into Maseko’s shoes hours later.

Maseko earlier testified that Gupta brother Ajay allegedly threatened to sort him out when he proved unwilling to shift government advertising to their new company.

Manyi’s arrival came with a raft of drastic changes at GCIS that included:

Manyi’s contract was not renewed and he exited GCIS in 2012 when Williams slipped into the acting DG position for the first time.

She would remain in that crucial government position for several years.

The late Collins Chabane, in renewing her contract for the acting job a third time over an 18-month period, seemingly embarrassed, toyed with the idea of actually just giving her the job back in 2014.

Williams told him no, that that would be in violation of due process as the post had to be advertised and she would have to apply like all other candidates.

Unbeknown to Williams, by then, some government departments and state-owned enterprises started coughing up huge amounts of cash for Gupta-owned media company TNA Media, which had launched its newspaper, The New Age, on December 6 2010. The Guptas’ 24-hour news channel ANN7 was launched in August 2013.

On Friday, Williams told the commission that GCIS had spent just above R50-million on the Gupta-owned media operation between 2011 and 2018.

That’s honourable minister to you

When Manyi’s contract wasn’t renewed in 2012, Williams slipped into the acting DG role where she remained until 2014, when former president Jacob Zuma announced a set of changes to government departments.

This included the relocation of GCIS, then a unit located in the presidency, to a newly established Department of Communications with Faith Muthambi – exposed in the #GuptaLeaks for giving confidential Cabinet information to the Guptas – as minister.

Shortly after arriving in office in May 2014, Muthambi told Williams that she had been “acting” as DG for too long and that the minister would like to finalise the recruitment process.

On June 17 2014 Human Resources told Williams she had been short-listed and should prepare for an interview. The next day, all interviews were cancelled, “indefinitely”, and 24 hours later, Williams got the first slap in the face from Muthambi.

This came via a letter of complaint over use of the wrong letterheads, unprofessionalism, a failure to effect changes the Minister wanted and things such as grammar and salutations.

In the scathing letter, Muthambi also told Williams to familiarise herself with how she should address the new minister.

She wanted to be addressed as ‘Honourable Muthambi in any circumstances’.”

Williams, seemingly a stickler for regulations, checked government protocol and was told this was nonsense, that this tag was reserved for Parliament.

But, she undertook to “quality control” her use of language and proceeded to kick off all correspondence with “Honourable Minster” after that.

Muthambi’s complaint also included a gripe over Williams failing to effect the secondment of an official from the old Department of Communications, Gift Buthelezi. Williams didn’t do it because there was not a shred of paperwork to authorise this move across to GCIS.

She wanted a formal letter or his move would have been deemed irregular —and as the then accounting officer of the the department, Williams wanted to make sure Muthambi ran a clean ship.

Although she responded to the “Honourable Minister”, Williams was not impressed and soon after, asked to see Zuma, hoping he could intervene as the relationship with Muthambi was now woefully strained.

And then, a word with the President

He gave me an audience. I remember Zuma laughing about the ‘honourable’ issue. I left with real confidence that Zuma would address it.”

Nothing came of the meeting with the president at his Mahlamba Ndlopfu residence in Pretoria and a few months later Williams was stripped of her duties as acting DG.

The job would now go to Donald Liphoko, a “media buyer,” who had been hired by Manyi during his one-year tenure.

Liphoko, a chief director at the time, was parachuted into this senior role, not only over the head of Williams, but also those of three deputy directors general – two of whom who later resigned.

As the acting DG, Liphoko should have replaced Williams as the official government spokesman, but Cabinet secretary Dr Cassius Lubusi, put a stop to that so she ended up doing the job anyway.

The Breakfast Millions

On Friday, during a short tea adjournment, Williams received a phone message from her former boss, Manyi. She immediately notified commission chair Justice Raymond Zondo.

I just got a text message from Mr Manyi who is saying that I must say that the TNA breakfasts didn’t happen in his time and it’s my view he is trying to influence my submission.”

The judge was not happy and asked the commission team to investigate and to report back to him on Monday.

GCIS is a central unit through which national government departments buy advertising space in the media. For years it was outsourced, but in 2010 it was decided to bring this function in-house as a cost-saving measure so government could benefit from discounts directly and, cut out the agency fee.

GCIS invested in a sophisticated software system that required the campaign needs of individual departments to be uploaded. The system would then generate the best media fit to get the message out to the public.

Except, the system had no provision for Gupta-linked breakfasts at state expense, it was not deemed government advertising at all.

Williams said she has since been told that her colleagues in supply chain management were bullied into authorising payment for the Gupta business breakfasts.

Chief financial officer Zweli Momeka, she testified, had told staff “this has to happen”.

When they pushed back, Momeka allegedly wrote a memo stating:

People are getting irritated with your rigidity,” and allegedly said that he too, was becoming impatient with them.

In the end, as at 2018 figures, GCIS spent about R55-million with the Guptas, Williams said.

This vanity project, entirely funded by taxpayer money, also saw the SABC fork out R20-million, Eskom R7.1-million, and Transnet, R17.4-million according to parliamentary responses.

Zuma had a full legal team present for most part of the commission’s first two weeks of testimony. His name featured often and prominently.

Over a total of six days since the commission began last Monday, Williams, Maseko, former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor and former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas one by one lifted the lid on State Capture central; the sometimes hidden and often overt hand of the Gupta family and Zuma.

They confirmed what was already known: A R600-million bribe offered to Jonas along with a ministerial position in exchange for firing senior officials at National Treasury, another to Mentor who had scored an unusual first class ticket from Transnet so she could meet Zuma in China, and the bullying of Maseko over GCIS’s R600-million budget.

Their testimony showed the price they paid for their courage and efforts to ward off the Gupta pressure: Jonas, fired in a late-night Cabinet reshuffle in 2017, Maseko, fired and transferred to a new post without any consultation as is legally required, while Mentor drifted into the yonder, later appearing on Facebook.

The careers of these and other incorruptible men and women were frustrated and wrecked as they tried, in vain, to hold the line; protect the integrity and institution of their government — against a politically connected external force.

As for SAA’s Vuyisile Kona, who turned down that alleged Gupta bribe in 2012, well, he too got the boot later on. There was no soft landing for him because he sounded the alarm, and he did so loudly and as a lone voice back then.

Williams is set to resume her testimony on Monday, when Justice Zondo will also tell lawyers for implicated parties, including Ajay Gupta, when he will consider their applications to cross-examine witnesses. DM

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