25 July 2024 | 10:57 AM

Lindiwe Sisulu appoints ‘conflicted’ firm to run investigation

Key Takeaways

Minister for Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu has appointed an apparently conflicted firm to run her investigation of the Amatola Water Board and its suspended chief executive, Vuyo Zitumane.

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The firm, Open Water Advanced Risk Solutions, appears to have a connection with one of the central figures in the Amatola saga, Advocate Lungile Bomela.

Bomela is not accused of any wrongdoing, but he is the chair of Empowering Water Solutions, whose sand water extraction technology was allegedly being touted by minister Sisulu and her adviser, Mphumzi Mdekazi.

Both Zitumane and her counterpart at Lepelle Northern Water have sworn affidavits blaming Sisulu’s initiative to investigate them on their resistance to contracting with Bomela’s EWS.

This makes EWS and Bomela central to their counter-allegations against the minister, reported last week by amaBhungane.

On 12 April, Sisulu issued a letter appointing Open Water to conduct a forensic investigation at Amatola Water in terms of the Water Services act.

She also asked Open Water to conduct a “lifestyle audit” on previous members of the Amatola board as well as a raft of employees, including Zitumane and her personal assistant.

But Open Water appears conflicted.

AmaBhungane has established that Open Water executive chair Reavell Nkondo is a director alongside Bomela of a Free State non-profit that goes by the name of the ELF Foundation.

Nkondo and Bomela became directors alongside former Free State MEC for finance Elzabe Rockman on the same day in February this year.

Bomela told amaBhungane: “I was invited by Ms Rockman to serve in the NPO in recent times and I have known her through my interaction as a lawyer with the ANC and Government in the Province. I know that Mr Nkondo and Ms Rockman know each other but I do not know the extent of their relationship.

“I interact with Ms Rockman in relation to the NPO. I do not have a relationship of any kind with Mr Nkondo.” (See his full response.)

But Nkondo’s indirect association with Bomela represents only one aspect of concern around Open Water’s potential conflict or bias.

Sisulu’s perceived political ambitions and alliances raise questions about the appropriateness of the selection of Open Water, both because of the minister’s associations and Open Water’s past conduct.

That is because both Sisulu and Open Water have faced accusations that their interests are aligned to Ace Magashule, formerly the premier of the Free State and now the secretary general of the ANC.

Ahead of the December 2017 ANC elective conference, Sisulu was on the Ramaphosa slate as nominee for deputy president of the party – but David Mabuza’s decision to throw in his lot with Ramaphosa against the Zuma slate led to her losing the deputy spot on his slate and in the national executive.

This appears to have led to a shift in her allegiances.

On 18 May last year Sisulu travelled to Bloemfontein to stand alongside Magashule as he delivered the Walter Sisulu memorial lecture.

Magashule delivered what was widely regarded as an attack on Ramaphosa – while at the same event Sisulu was rapturously welcomed into the ANC Womens’ League by Bathabile Dlamini, one of former President Jacob Zuma’s most loyal and most tainted ministers.

Access the documents we used for this story by clicking on the Evidence docket.

This was interpreted, both within the ANC and elsewhere, as a deliberate political act by Sisulu to build new alliances and buttress her political ambitions.

The selection of Open Water to conduct Sisulu’s investigation is significant in this context.

In February 2019, Volksblad reported that the Zondo commission was investigating the relationship between Magashule and Open Water’s Nkondo. It also noted that Nkondo’s wife managed the official diary for Rockman when she was Magashule’s finance MEC.

AmaBhungane was not able to independently confirm these claims.

In March 2019 investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh published his deeply researched book on Magashule, Gangster State.

Among a mountain of allegations he wrote that it appeared Magashule may have participated in a coverup of a scandal at the Free State department of human settlements (FSHS) with the aid of Open Water, though the company’s chief executive Peet Pieterse vehemently denied it.

Myburgh wrote: “Although the firm was technically contracted by the FSHS, several sources told me that the order to appoint it came from Magashule himself. They maintained that Magashule had a close relationship with Open Water’s chairman, Reavell ‘Ricky’ Nkondo, a former spy boss at the National Intelligence Agency.

“The premier’s official diary, obtained through a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) request, confirms that there was contact between Magashule and Nkondo after Open Water was appointed by the FSHS. In one instance, Magashule met Nkondo for a ‘private meeting’ at Free State House, the premier’s official residence, one evening in mid-July 2013.”

Myburgh argued that Open Water focused on mid-level officials, allowing the big fish of the Magashule administration to get away, though it was they who allegedly directed the FSHS scheme.

Back in the early 2000s Open Water’s work was also the basis of a fraud case against three former Eastern Cape Development Corporation executives, including former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas.

A judge later reportedly found that Open Water’s report demonstrated “a complete lack of objectivity”. The executives, widely believed to have been the victims of a witch hunt, were acquitted.

In 2016 amaBhungane reported that Open Water had been deployed in what appeared to be a similar politically inspired witch hunt against then Council for Scientific and Industrial Research chief executive Sibusiso Sibisi.

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While other private forensic firms have endured claims they conduct “factional investigations” tailored for specific outcomes, the nature of the overlapping relationships between Sisulu, Magashule, Nkondo and Bomela raise red flags in relation to Open Water’s appointment.

Open Water’s Pieterse said, “I submitted our response to the Minister’s office. I trust they will incorporate into their response.”

Neither Sisulu nor Magashule had responded by the time of publication, but this story will be updated to reflect their responses.

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Buyeleni Sibanyoni and Sam Sole

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