“Hijacked” nurses union sides with embattled Tembisa hospital boss

A power struggle over control of a nursing union and its finances has left the wife of suspended Tembisa hospital chief executive Ashley Mthunzi in control. The Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union has since become a strident supporter of the CEO.

The Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU), a trade union organising healthcare workers, was allegedly hijacked in October last year in what one faction of union leaders, or national office-bearers, say was a bogus congress orchestrated by its then president Lerato Mthunzi.

Lerato Mthunzi is the wife of the embattled Tembisa Hospital chief executive officer Ashely Mthunzi.

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Key takeaways

  • Embattled Tembisa chief executive Ashley Mthunzi is fighting for his job after being suspended amid allegations of widespread corruption.
  • One of his most strident supporters is a little-known trade union representing nurses.
  • The union was allegedly ‘captured’ by a faction around Lerato Mthunzi, who is both Mthunzi’s wife and general secretary of the union.[/sidebarContentQuote]

The union has since come to the defence of the CEO after he was suspended on 26 August, together with chief financial officer of the Gauteng health department, Lerato Madyo, following a series of News24 exposés of apparent rampant graft at Tembisa hospital in Gauteng’s East Rand.

Gauteng health department official and whistle-blower Babita Deokaran flagged R850-million in suspicious transactions at the hospital just weeks before she was killed in a hit in August last year. Many of those payments were overseen by Mthunzi, who was appointed CEO in mid-2021 after acting in the role since April of that year.

In a 30 August statement, YNITU placed itself squarely in the CEO’s corner, saying it was “disgusted” that Gauteng Premier David Makhura was “scapegoating yet another official for corruption”. The statement was gushing about the CEO’s role in improving infrastructure and services at the hospital and claimed Mthunzi was the victim of “character assassination”.

But does the union genuinely reflect the views of the healthcare workers it purports to represent, or has it been turned into a mouthpiece for the Mthunzis as the general secretary’s husband fights for his job?

Sham congress

According to three rival office-bearers, the fledgling union – formed in 2015 and formally registered as a trade union in 2017 – was captured by Lerato Mthunzi at a congress held over three days at the end of October. They say the congress was illegitimate.

The email made several other allegations, including that no election register was produced, that there was no transparency in the process, and that other leaders at the time had been excluded from shaping the agenda and documents to be presented. It paints a picture of a process beset by lobbying and manipulation.

Lerato Mthunzi, the rival office-bearers claim, was not even eligible for re-election after having left her job in the health sector earlier in the year, the email claimed.

Lerato Mthunzi is the Founder and General Secretary of Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU). Picture sourced from YNITU website.

But by the time the congress came to an end on 31 October, a new leadership was installed with Mthunzi as general secretary.

Asked to comment on the allegations made by her former colleagues, Mthunzi said that the issue of her non-employment in the sector “makes no sense”.

“Obviously if you are going to be a full time official of the trade union, you’re literally an employee of the trade union.”

However, the union constitution makes it clear that only full members can stand for elections, and full members must be employed in the sector.

Responding to allegations that the congress was manipulated, Mthunzi said YNITU “went through all check and balances” at the congress.

“There is an electoral commission report that ensures that everything, even loopholes that were identified in our constitution were dealt with thoroughly and we made sure that all delegates who were in the congress were in agreement. So it would actually make no sense to anyone to actually peddle lies that the congress did not form a quorum,” she said.

An “electoral commission report” was produced by two electoral officers seconded by from the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), to which YNITU was an affiliate. The report cursorily noted a couple of procedural matters that were not clear in the constitution but did not deal with issues that would later become the main points of contention, notably the quorum issue.

Trevor Shaku, one of the two SATFU electoral officers who signed the report, told amaBhungane that the report only focused on the elections process, and that the congress was later found by SAFTU to have failed to form a quorum.

“As a result the decisions taken at that conference were null and void and the recommendation [from SAFTU] was that [YNITU] must hold another conference”.

At its peak there were 37 attendees at the congress from a union of over 5 000 members. Shaku said that even on the most generous interpretation of the constitution YNITU would have required more than double that number – at least two-thirds of the 131 members who had registered.

Shaku said that after SAFTU’s leadership consulted with the old and new leadership of YNITU, a decision was taken by the federation that the congress would have to be reconvened.

A letter signed by SAFTU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi dated 17 November 2021 noted that part of the old leadership had written to the federation with a list of grievances asking for SAFTU’s intervention.

The letter continued: “It is an undeniable/indisputable fact that the National Congress didn’t form a quorum… The 37 was not representative irrespective of the measure used.”

It concluded that all the decisions taken at the congress “are accordingly not valid and should be set aside”, and a new congress would have to be “convened strictly in line with the provisions of the constitution”.

The following week, on 26 November, YNITU informed SAFTU of its decision to disaffiliate from the federation.

Mthunzi accused SAFTU of interfering in the union and of handling the dispute in a “destructive and divisive manner”. SAFTU leaders, she said, “continue to blatantly disregard and disrespect the current leadership and continue addressing expelled members as YNITU leadership”.

By this time, Dikolomela-Lengene and her allied office-bearers had been expelled by the new leadership.

The department of labour did not respond to questions about Dikolomela-Lengene’s complaint to the registrar and it is unclear if an investigation is underway.

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Questionable transactions

In the midst of the fight over the congress, disputes ensued over the union’s accounts. On 6 November, Dikolomela-Lengene and Portia Maseko, the Treasurer of the old leadership, approached the union’s bank, FNB, to have Mthunzi replaced by Yanga Booi as a signatory on the accounts. Booi was the second deputy president of the old leadership.

As the two YNITU factions then scrambled to get control of the union’s money, FNB froze the union’s accounts on 8 November.

At the end of the month Mthunzi’s faction lodged an urgent court application to compel FNB to give Mthunzi and two other members of her faction access to the accounts, and to have the other members removed as signatories.

In court papers, Mthunzi accused Dikolomela-Lengene, Maseko and Booi of having “fraudulently changed signatories in the account”.

In an affidavit, Mthunzi says that on 8 November she approached FNB together with YNITU’s newly appointed president Rich Sicina “regarding the change in authorised signatories to the applicant’s account”. They were then informed that FNB would block the accounts.

Mthunzi claimed that she and Sicina “were still signatories, and both our signatures were required for any transaction in the account”.

In an answering affidavit, FNB employee Maanea Tsanwani said the claim that the two were still signatories “makes no sense”, and that Sicina was never nominated as a signatory.

Maseko and Dikolomela-Lengene, however, were already signatories when they requested that Mthunzi be replaced by Booi, and, said Tsanwani, “The substitution was effective with immediate effect”.

Justifying the decision to freeze the accounts, Tsanwani said that “It is patently clear that some power-struggle is raging between the Applicant’s rightful and illegitimate office bearers”.

The bank would not be drawn into disputes between the national office bearers and had “no other option but to safeguard the funds… by retaining the hold on the accounts pending the outcome of the disputes”.

In her affidavit, Tsanwani also pointed to a questionable R1-million payment from the YNITU accounts made on the same day Mthunzi was replaced as a signatory. The money was paid into the account of Nursepreneur – a company of which Mthunzi is the sole director.

According to Tsanwani’s affidavit, “The only inference to be drawn is that [Mthunzi] herself accessed the [YNITU’s] online banking profile and performed this transaction transferring R1 000 000.00 from the Applicant’s account to an account held by her own company. It is strange that she makes no mention hereof in her founding affidavit.”

The bank was unable to verify the transaction and it was blocked.

Mthunzi told amaBhungane that she made the payment to her own company after she was made aware of the changes to the signatories. She says she still had access to the YNITU accounts online and agreed with the new leadership to move the money to the Nursepreneur account to keep it out of the reach of the former leadership.

About a week after heading to court, YNITU withdrew its urgent application.

Defending the boss

Dikolomela-Lengene told amaBhungane that her faction has not had the resources to pursue the matter of the bank accounts in court, and so the account remains frozen.

Meanwhile, Mthunzi and her faction are using a new account and have continued to run the union, which in recent weeks has been actively lobbying in support of Mthunzi’s husband, the suspended Tembisa hospital CEO Asheley Mthunzi.

Suspended Tembisa hospital CEO Asheley Mthunzi. Picture sourced from twitter.

A series of News24 exposés blew the lid on rampant corruption at the hospital during Ashley Mthunzi’s tenure.

The CEO allegedly oversaw a massive spending spree amounting to hundreds of millions of rands, in which invoices were split into values of under R500 000. Purchases over that threshold would require a public tender process. Below that amount, the hospital’s CEO has authority to sign off.

This sleight of hand in procurement allowed a web of shell companies with no medical experience to sell supplies to the hospital at vastly inflated prices.

According to News24, the Gauteng department of health dragged its feet, and only instituted a random compliance audit of hospitals conducted after Deokaran flagged the suspicious payments. The audit barely scratched the surface and was completed in less than a week.

When Mthunzi was eventually suspended amid a public outcry following News24’s reporting, YNITU became one of his most vocal supporters.

In its statement of 30 August 2022, four days after Mthunzi’s suspension, YNITU argued that Mthunzi was being scapegoated by the department, and that his suspension was unprocedural in that it was the premier, not the head of department, who removed him.

The statement demanded an “intense and purposeful” investigation, but also seemed to have determined that “the investigation will absolve the CEO” and the “real masterminds” will be exposed.

The statement said that YNITU leaders visited the hospital to engage with an organisation calling itself the Tembisa hospital Institutional Labour Caucus (ILC) – a murky entity claiming to represent organised labour at the hospital.

The day before the YNITU statement, the ILC published a similarly-worded letter condemning the “desperate and irrational suspension orchestrated by the Premier of Gauteng, Mr David Makhura”.

The letter purported to represent the views of five unions and included their logos. Among them was the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), which is a major affiliate of union federation COSATU, and the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (DENOSA).

But the ILC’s claims to represent organised labour were rubbished by unions it supposedly represented.

NEHAWU’s Gauteng provincial secretary Mzikayise Tshontshi distanced his union from the ILC, saying that NEHAWU’s leadership only became aware of the letter after it was made public.

“We then convened a meeting to find out about how our logo ended up in that letter. We were told that some shop stewards of the union attended a meeting with the other unions and then assumptions were made – yet shop stewards did not have the capacity to speak on behalf of the union,” he said.

He added that “NEHAWU is an anti-corruption union” and does not oppose the suspension of Mthunzi.

A statement by DENOSA read: “It is part of procedure for the employer to precautionary suspend or transfer an employee if there are serious allegations of misconduct against them and to give credibility to the investigation in that the employee is precautionary suspended so that they cannot influence or hinder the investigation.”

Another union whose logo was on the ILC letter, the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers, came out strongly against the ILC’s “false narrative” and the “fraudulent” use of its name to “achieve some sordid agenda”.

ILC Media Liason Kansas Stevens said he has been advised not to comment any further on this matter.

YNITU has denied that the relationship between the Mthunizis poses a conflict of interest for the union, saying it has “taken a firm decision to excuse her” in addressing the matter of her husband’s suspension. “We must also state upfront that the relationship had no bearing on the position taken by the union which is why we are upfront about it.”

On SAFM’s Sunrise radio show, interviewer Stephen Grootes told YNITU’s president Sicina: “Okay, so just to be clear, your version is the fact that your general secretary is married to this person had no influence in this decision. Nothing at all. And you expect us to believe that?”

Sicina’s responded by saying that Grootes was pushing “a narrative”.

“YNITU is saying we are disgusted in that yet again one official is thrown under the bus, and everyone believes we are saying that because we are supporting Dr Mthunzi because we are indirectly supporting our general secretary.”

“Well yes, it seems pretty obvious,” Grootes retorted.

While denying that the general secretary’s relationship with the CEO influenced YNITU’s position, Sicina appeared to contradict himself in claiming that the union took the stance it did because it was privy to information “because we have a general secretary who is married to Dr Mthunzi, so we know what’s actually happening in Tembisa”.

Ashley Mthunzi did not respond to questions amaBhungane sent him.

Metadata on the ILC’s letter suggests the involvement of Phakamile Hlubi, a friend of Lerato Mthunzi and the spokesperson of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). Social media posts point to the closeness of Mthunzi and Hlubi.

One series of posts show Mthunzi on stage with NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim at NUMSA’s controversial 11th congress earlier this year, which saw delegates from two regions stage a walkout.

NUMSA is an affiliate of SAFTU.

In the lead up to the congress over 30 members including second deputy president Ruth Ntlokotse were suspended in what critics of Jim claim was a purge. Court action that resulted in the suspensions being lifted delayed the congress for two days.

YNITU, despite having disaffiliated from SAFTU, was vocal in support of the Jim faction, saying in a statement by Lerato Mthunzi that that YNITU was “exasperated by these deliberate attempts to derail and distract Numsa in continuing its sterling work of saving jobs, fighting for better conditions for workers and ensuring workers get fair salary deals and benefits”.

In response to questions, Hlubi told amaBhungane: “The statement was shared with me in a Word format and I simply converted it to PDF before I shared it with other media houses. And by the way, I often share statements of unions with other media houses and there is nothing strange about that.”

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