South Africa

Days of Zondo

Phumla Williams: ‘I was dealing with an enemy who had come to steal’

Acting head of GCIS, Phumla Williams, appears before the commission of inquiry into state capture. Photo: live stream frame grab.

The tenure of former minister Faith Muthambi re-opened wounds of Apartheid-era torture for senior public servant, Phumla Williams, who told the State Capture inquiry that all efforts were geared at getting rid of her in order to plunder state resources.

Former communications minister Faith Muthambi can probably expect to be served with a notice reserved for implicated parties following testimony by long-serving public servant, Phumla Williams, at the State Capture inquiry on Monday.

Williams, the acting director general of the Government Communications and Information Systems (GCIS), provided shocking evidence of how this critical unit came to be wrecked following the ousting of her predecessor Themba Maseko in 2011 and later, the arrival of Muthambi as minister.

She testified how she was systematically stripped of her duties at the expense of the taxpayer because Muthambi wanted control of procurement at GCIS.

She wanted procurement at all costs. She wanted to steal at all cost,” Williams testified.

Sharing painfully intimate details of her harrowing experience under the tainted former minister, Williams said her intolerable working conditions became too much and she started suffering flashbacks of her days in police custody during Apartheid.

She was having panic attacks, waking up with shivers, constantly thinking “someone” was coming – like she had while she was in custody in the ’80s.

She lived with that, unable to tell anyone and eventually her sister had to move in with her.

This woman had ripped open my scars of torture completely,” Williams said.

After several years of tension between her and Muthambi – as well as an unsuccessful effort to seek the help of former president Jacob Zuma – Williams said she received a memo in August 2016 from the then acting DG, Donald Liphoko, who had been brought into GCIS by Mzwanele Manyi during his one-year stint in 2011/2012.

Liphoko was parachuted into the acting DG post in 2014 by Muthambi over the heads of Williams and three other deputy directors general who were all more senior than him.

In the memo, he detailed several functions that would be removed from under Williams’ control, including supply chain management, salaries, transport services, auxiliary and asset management services and internal communications.

He told her this was at the instruction of Muthambi.

From August 2016 to April 2017, seventy percent of my portfolio no longer reported to me. Yet I continued being paid the salary of the deputy director general as if all these portfolios were reporting to me.”

Williams said the memo effectively rendered her job redundant.

They knew they had removed me from doing Cabinet work. They decided that procurement and finance must be removed from this woman,” she told the commission on Monday.

Williams said she then decided to leave government employ on early retirement and believed Muthambi may have bought “champagne” to celebrate this.

But she rescinded this decision via a letter to Liphoko five days later.

She said she withdrew the retirement notice after digging deep within her soul, and realising who she was dealing with.

I had to get it out of my system, I had to accept that I was not dealing with an ANC cadre, but rather, an enemy who had come to steal.”

Muthambi, appointed as a minister in 2014, was exposed in the #Guptaleaks for leaking confidential Cabinet information to the Guptas during her time in office between 2014 and 2017. She is one of several politicians against whom criminal cases have been opened by various civil society organisations, including Outa.

Williams said that on deciding not to flee, she fired off a grievance letter to Muthambi in which she challenged the unilateral changes to her job and the rationale for the changes

When I was writing this letter, the effects of my torture were back. I was no longer sleeping. I had nightmares. I was reliving my situation. My facial twitches were back.

I was an ANC activist, arrested in 1988 and I went through weeks of torture because they wanted me to become an askari, to turn against my comrades. I was arrested by a former ANC MK cadre in Soweto. Tortured in Piet Retief.

I never thought in this government, that people could do this. I was tortured for weeks and Muthambi did the same to me.

I had to accept this was not a minister. She was the enemy. She was not interested in serving the people of SA.”

The years that I was acting in the public service under Minister Muthambi went against everything I believe in for the fight for justice.”

During that time GCIS lost key staff and the organisation operated on autopilot, Williams said.

We were lucky that we had an organisation of dedicated public servants, they knew their work and did their job. If you ask me, they were not getting any strategic leadership, none whatsoever.”

She said Muthambi also failed repeatedly over the years to implement a recommendation by the Public Service Commission to fill the DG post.

That recommendation followed a complaint by Williams who said she assumed former president Jacob Zuma was aware of it as the PSC had informed her that it was sent to both Muthambi and Zuma’s office in 2016.

She acted in the DG position for roughly 58 months, just over four and a half years, in the six-year period after Manyi left.

Earlier testimony by Maseko showed how Manyi immediately replaced him as the head of GCIS, the timing neatly coinciding with Maseko’s failure to help the Guptas land R600-million in government advertising spend.

Maseko, former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor and former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, may be cross-examined by lawyers for some of the implicated parties. Ajay and Rajesh Gupta, Duduzane Zuma and former public enterprises minister Lynne Brown have submitted applications for permission to cross-examine them. Those are scheduled to be heard by commission chairman Justice Raymond Zondo on Wednesday.

While there has been “correspondence” from Zuma, there is no sign of such an application from him. The former president is no doubt aware that the commission’s lawyers intend to ensure a crucial condition for those who succeed: That implicated parties not only get to cross-examine witnesses, but that they also put up a version that could be interrogated via cross-examination by the commission’s own legal team. DM


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