An ANC-led Eastern Cape municipality has openly defied the local government minister, Lechesa Tsenoli, by employing a municipal manager who is facing a raft of criminal charges – including corruption and fraud – despite a written warning from Tsenoli that the appointment is illegal.
In November Tsenoli sent the Camdeboo district council a formal determination that Reverend Noel Pietersen was unsuitable for the municipal manager post and declaring his appointment null and void.
Despite this, Pietersen began working at the council in December and is still in the position.
On Monday the Democratic Alliance (DA) laid criminal charges against Pietersen, the Camdeboo mayor, Hanna Makoba, and five ANC councillors, alleging fraud and contraventions of the Municipal Finance Management Act and the Municipal Systems Act.
Pietersen’s checquered history
Asked for comment, Tsenoli told amaBhungane that he was “interacting with the municipality and the province … At this stage we do not want to be drawn into speculation.”
Pietersen, an ordained minister of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, has a chequered history.
In 2009 he was suspended by the Oudtshoorn municipality over his use of council funds to fight a personal defamation case. He was dismissed, but later reinstated by the council through a settlement agreement in terms of which he was paid out and resigned. A criminal conviction related to the same matter was overturned on appeal.
Tsenoli’s letter points out that Pietersen is attending court for six criminal cases arising from investigations by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) into his work as Oudtshoorn municipal manager.
These include charges of fraud, corruption, theft and contraventions of the Municipal Finance Management Act.
Tsenoli records that Pietersen claimed the charges “will collapse in court” and “were engineered by biased investigators who serve the interests of a certain political party” – presumably the DA.
Adverse findings against Pietersen
Tsenoli also refers to adverse findings by the auditor general over Pietersen’s handling of finances while municipal manager for Ukhahlamba district (now Joe Gqabi) municipality, also in the Eastern Cape, between 2001 and 2006. Tsenoli’s letter says that Pietersen was sued by the Ukhahlamba council after he allegedly sold his official vehicle and pocketed the proceeds. The dispute was settled out of court.
Tsenoli points out that, during his interview for the Camdeboo job, Pietersen failed to disclose that he was under criminal investigation – though he had highlighted the one case in which he had been found not guilty on appeal.
When this was drawn to his attention, he had confirmed that he was facing charges of corruption and fraud. However, he said he was not guilty of the offences and that he had made representations to the National Prosecuting Authority.
But Tsenoli found this explanation was no justification for Pietersen’s failure to disclose the unresolved cases against him.
Pietersen rubbish claims against him
“It is our considered view that he withheld the information to mislead … if anything, it shows he has little regard for basic principles of good governance.”
In an interview last week, Pietersen dismissed questions about his fitness for the Camdeboo post as “DA rubbish … I was elected because I was the best. Maybe the DA doesn’t like me because I’m here to put transformation in the economy of the town.
“They [the SIU] claim I had given contracts to people to suit the ANC and to suit my pockets. They have nothing to prove it,” Pietersen told amaBhungane. “They can’t find evidence that I’ve received personal gain. I was advancing people that were marginalised while I was there [at Oudtshoorn].”
In his letter Tsenoli also mentions Pietersen’s claim that the SIU investigation was part of a conspiracy and the supposed “lack of apprehension by the president and the minister of justice, of the manipulation of their well-intended objectives to serve certain political ends”.
Tsenoli found this explanation unconvincing.
“The candidate’s past conduct displays a nagging lack of adherence to professional ethics and a propensity to squander municipal resources for personal benefit. His maintenance of accounting records … as proof of proper use of municipal finances … falls far short of the expected professional standards,” wrote Tsenoli.
When the DA caucus, a minority on the Camdeboo district council, first brought the planned appointment to the minister’s attention, it highlighted the fact that Camdeboo is one of the few well-run South African municipalities.
Tsenoli’s report confirms this, saying that for all but one of the past 15 years Camdeboo had received unqualified audit reports. In 2010 it was named the “Best Performing Municipality” by the Vuna Awards.
Backdating salary allegations
AmaBhungane has also seen a letter from the Eastern Cape local government minister, Mlibo Qoboshiyane, sent in September, which endorses Pietersen’s appointment and encourages Camdeboo mayor Hanna Makoba to ask the national treasury to relax the minimum competency requirements.
Asked to explain this, Qoboshiyane said his letter had been sent before the minister’s investigation. He added that the council had been advised to “strike a balance between presumption of innocence until proven guilty and its commitment to clean governance, bearing in mind that it is not illegal to appoint a person with pending criminal charges”.
But Tsenoli roundly rejected this view. His letter notes: “It is not only anomalous but irrational to purport to be serious in the fight against corruption while on the other hand as government we sanction the employment of a person who is currently facing a criminal trial, amongst others, for corruption and fraud.”
Camdeboo mayor Makoba refused to answer questions.
The charges laid by the DA relate to the backdating of Pietersen’s salary.
DA caucus secretary Samantha Jankovich revealed that, after receiving letters from his attorneys, a special meeting of the council had decided to backdate Pietersen’s salary to the beginning of December, rather than paying him from December 17 when he started work.
Pietersen also sent a letter to Camdeboo’s acting chief financial officer, Gerrar Maya, titled “Instruction for payment of salary: Myself”.
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