14 April 2024 | 02:34 AM

Lie test sparks new SIU battle

Key Takeaways

Public protector Thuli Madonsela has been asked to intervene in a dispute between the head of the Special Investigating Unit, Willie Hofmeyr, and the SIU’s former head of business support, Miseria Nyathi.

Nyathi was suspended in April on full pay following allegations of misconduct for sharing “privileged” information with members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) in the unit. She was also accused of filing irregular claims for a special overtime allowance.

Nyathi was subsequently dismissed on Wednesday this week, a day after the Mail & Guardian sent questions to the SIU about the matter.

Nehawu members at the SIU have been locked in a protracted conflict with the unit’s boss, Willie Hofmeyr, mainly over “transformation” issues at the unit and a Nehawu member was responsible for laying charges against Hofmeyr relating to a refurbishment contract for SIU headquarters.

In a memorandum circulated to staff on Wednesday the SIU executive committee said Nyathi had been dismissed because of her refusal to undergo a lie detector test as part of the investigation. Agreement to undergo polygraph tests is written into the employment contracts of SIU staff.

Memo

The memo said: “Despite the SIU warning Ms Nyathi several times that her refusal would constitute a material breach of contract, which would allow it to terminate her contract, Ms Nyathi failed to heed the warnings.”

The memo said that instead, Nyathi had sought to challenge her suspension and applied to the Labour Court for an interdict to prevent the SIU from terminating her contract.

According to the memo, the court found the extension of her suspension was invalid, but refused her application to interdict her dismissal.

“It [the court] found that the SIU had acted reasonably in requesting Ms Nyathi to take a polygraph examination and that her contract had been breached by her refusal to do so,” the memo said.

“Since it has become clear that there has been an irretrievable breakdown in the trust relationship between the unit and Ms Nyathi, the head of the unit — has now terminated Ms Nyathi’s contract with immediate effect.”

Nyathi told the M&G she would leave the issue of her dismissal to her attorney, but defended her refusal to take the lie detector test.

“I don’t trust it”

“Hofmeyr called me under false pretences that I was going for a performance appraisal while he was going to suspend me. He lied to me and wanted me to take a lie detector test. [The test] is not credible, I don’t trust what would’ve been the outcome of it.”

The public protector’s office, which has worked closely with Hofmeyr and the SIU, confirmed that public protector Thuli Madonsela had received a request to intervene in the dispute and was in the process of scheduling a meeting with Hofmeyr.

In response, Hofmeyr’s office said: “The SIU is not in a position to comment on any actions by the public protector, but would like to emphasise that we will co-operate with her and her team at all times.”

Meanwhile, Nehawu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla has accused the embattled SIU management of being behind a campaign to destabilise the union. “We are convinced that there are serious issues at the SIU. We discovered that there are people who were deployed by members of [SIU] management to infiltrate Nehawu. Some of the people left the union after we confronted them through our correspondence. This was an attempt to get rid of the union in the institution.”

About Nyathi, Pamla was equally critical, saying: “The SIU is really desperate to get rid of her because she started raising issues of transformation in the unit and she had been refused the right to be in charge of the finance department, which falls under her responsibilities.

“We believe that the SIU is an institution that has a lot to hide. We are concerned that SIU continues using resources to get rid of employees at the expense of taxpayers.”

No beef

In response to questions from the M&G the SIU insisted it had no beef with the union.

It said that the unit and Nehawu “have developed a positive working relationship and we have made much progress in addressing a range of staff concerns”.

“This does not mean that there are not some disgruntled union members within the SIU, but a distinction should be drawn between Nehawu as such, and individual Nehawu members who appear to be the origin of many of the complaints.

“We would like to stress that we have a good and positive relationship with Nehawu. However, some of the charges against Ms Nyathi relate to inappropriate behaviour regarding certain individuals within Nehawu,” the unit said.

The allegations against Nyathi, which include a conflict of interest, breach of fiduciary duty and disclosure of the SIU’s confidential or privileged information, stems from an email of a Nehawu document which allegedly appeared to originate from her daughter’s computer.

The document, created in February this year, simmered with allegations of racism in the unit and accused Hofmeyr of using black members of the SIU executive committee to create division among employees and to prevent transformation.

“The head of unit [sic] will call meetings with ‘certain individuals’ for private meetings outside the office to divide us. On the other hand, the executive committee and the other employees who have no knowledge of our struggle see us as hooligans and to distort facts about our struggle,” said the document.

Privileged info

On the day Nyathi was suspended, she met Hofmeyr. According to a transcript, he told her: “If proven correct, the result of your alleged misconduct was that you caused confidential or privileged information of the SIU to be disclosed to persons who were not supposed to be privy [to it].”

Hofmeyr continued: “You were aware of an imminent attack on [the] position, reputation and standing of the heads of the SIU and exco and you failed in your duty to bring such attacks to our attention.”

Nyathi was suspended the same day as chief financial officer Veronica Marshsmit, who later resigned in unclear circumstances.

Last month an employee opened a criminal case against Hofmeyr relating to an initial R11-million tender for the refurbishment of the SIU’s offices. Nehawu also accused Marshsmit of failing to follow proper procedures regarding a payment she made for the renovations.

The SIU has dismissed the allegations, saying that an investigation by external auditors found nothing irregular. However, a police probe is ongoing.

In an interview with City Press last month Marshsmit backed Hofmeyr on the criminal case and said the charges laid by a Nehawu member were aimed at disrupting the unit.

“No skills”

But she also criticised Hofmeyr: “I believe Willie Hofmeyr wants to fight crime, but he has no personal or management skills,” she told the paper.

Marshsmit also expressed unhappiness about the way the unit treated her after a fallout with Nyathi.

According to her, Hofmeyr “went out of his way to please junior staff members” after Nehawu came into the unit and neglected his senior managers.

Marshsmit resigned after reaching a settlement with the SIU that it would withdraw her suspension. She declined to speak to the M&G.

A source with insight into the events, but who wished to remain anonymous, said: “The unit doesn’t know how to address issues. It leaves them until they reach boiling point and then it suspends people.

“It is playing with people’s lives. Hofmeyr wants to save his own skin. Unfortunately, Nehawu is targeting him and the racism allegations that it is making are not genuine. You can’t blame him, you can’t trust anyone in the SIU.”

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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