Special Investigating Unit called in to probe binned SA Tourism-Spurs sponsorship deal
Seven incidents previously reported to the SA Tourism whistle-blowing hotline — but never followed up on — are being probed by the Special Investigating Unit. Among them is understood to be the aborted R1bn sponsorship deal between SA Tourism and the British soccer club Tottenham Hotspur.
Under the previous executive leadership and board of SA Tourism, whistle-blower complaints seem to have stacked up without action.
The new board has called in the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to look into seven previously neglected issues dating back to May 2022.
A letter sent to SA Tourism staff by interim board chairperson Tim Harris last week, seen by Daily Maverick, confirms this.
The letter notes that as part of the new SA Tourism Board’s induction process, briefings were held with employees of SA Tourism.
“During the briefings we received, management brought to the board’s attention seven outstanding whistleblowing reports, submitted through the SA Tourism Hotline, concerning incidents that could have a negative reputational impact on the entity,” the letter states.
These reports date “as far back as May 2022”, says the letter.
“The board deliberated on all the reported incidents, and given our fiduciary obligations, resolved to have them investigated. It is important that such reports are fully investigated to ensure that there is accountability for any wrongdoing, and to prevent a cloud hanging over those that have been falsely accused.”
The letter states that the SA Tourism Board consequently approached the SIU and agreed that “several” investigators would be seconded to SA Tourism to work with the body’s internal audit team to probe the allegations.
When contacted by Daily Maverick on Tuesday, Harris would not be drawn on the nature of any specific complaints being investigated — beyond saying that they involve “potentially credible allegations including nepotism, mismanagement and corruption”.
Harris declined to confirm whether one of the investigations would probe SA Tourism’s aborted R1-billion sponsorship deal with Tottenham Hotspur. Daily Maverick is reliably informed, however, that this is indeed the case.
SIU investigations set cat among pigeons
That the arrival of SIU investigators has caused some uproar in parts of SA Tourism is evident from an article published this week on Iqbal Survé’s online media platform IOL.
Headlined “SA Tourism interim board accused of persecution by some employees”, it characterised the new corruption investigations as a “persecution tool to intimidate staff members”.
The article stated that some SA Tourism employees had approached IOL and claimed that “some executive committee members were ambushed and had their laptops raided in what the interim board termed as investigations”.
The letter seen by Daily Maverick sent to SA Tourism staff implies that some laptops may indeed have been seized or copied. It states that it will be necessary for investigators to preserve data relevant to the inquiries from certain officials, but stresses that “these officials are not necessarily implicated in the reported incidences”.
Asked for comment on the IOL framing of the SIU investigations, Harris told Daily Maverick:
“When whistle-blowers report incidents in good faith, it is the board’s obligation to ensure that they are properly reviewed. In May 2023, the SA Tourism Board was presented with various cases received through the independent ethics hotline that, by policy, required escalation to the board. These cases involve not only SA Tourism executives, but employees across all levels.
“Thus, to suggest that this is a witch-hunt or persecution of SA Tourism executives is spurious and begs the question as to how an ethics line, meant to encourage whistle-blowing, could be managed without proper procedures and resultant investigations.”
Previous board, executive left with questions to answer
Harris was tight-lipped when asked why some of these whistle-blowing complaints were apparently ignored for more than a year, saying only: “The current SA Tourism board is not in a position to reflect on the decisions of any previous SA Tourism boards.”
It is hard to know exactly who to finger for the lack of follow-up in this instance, because the SA Tourism Board under former tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu became something of a revolving door — particularly in the last few months of 2022, when the identity of the board chair seemed to change with dizzying speed.
Last in that seat under Sisulu’s tenure was Thozamile Botha, who raised eyebrows through his seeming determination to keep pushing through the Spurs deal even after virtually industry-wide condemnation.
For the period between May 2022 and May 2023 when the whistle-blower complaints stacked up, however, there is no ambiguity about who was leading the executive team: the then acting CEO Themba Khumalo.
Khumalo, who already had a chequered past at previous government entities, including the Airports Company South Africa, SAA and Telkom, resigned in May 2023 following the fall-out from the Spurs deal — which it was clear he championed.
His was the second executive resignation as a result of the Spurs scandal, with the first being SA Tourism’s acting CFO Johan van der Walt. This followed the revelation by Daily Maverick that a possibly corrupt relationship existed between Van der Walt and the agency being proposed to “activate” the Spurs deal, WWP Group.
In the months since, Daily Maverick has been informed on numerous occasions that the WWP Group — for which Van der Walt worked as “group financial director” — is still involved in marketing for various government entities. DM