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Nurses union sides with suspended Tembisa Hospital boss

The Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU) was “hijacked” in October last year in what one faction of union leaders says was a bogus congress orchestrated by its then president Lerato Mthunzi, wife of suspended Tembisa Hospital CEO Ashley Mthunzi, who has called his suspension a “victim of character assassination”.

The union rushed to the defence of the CEO when he and chief financial officer of the Gauteng Health Department, Lerato Madyo, were suspended after a series of exposés of rampant graft at Tembisa Hospital.

Gauteng Health Department official and whistle-blower Babita Deokaran flagged R850m in suspicious transactions at the hospital just weeks before she was murdered 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 effusive in its praise of the CEO’s role in improving the hospital’s infrastructure and services.

Sham congress

Three rival office-bearers said the fledgling union – formed in 2015 and formally registered as a trade union in 2017 – was captured by Lerato Mthunzi in October at a three-day congress they described as illegitimate.

An email dated 2 November 2021, to the registrar of labour from Fikile Dikolomela-Lengene, who was removed as first deputy president after the congress, contains a list of allegations about the congress and its outcomes.

A central claim of the email, signed off by Dikolomela-Lengene and three other dissident office-bearers, is that there were not enough delegates at the congress to meet a quorum required by the union’s constitution.

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.

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

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

Mthunzi justified the issue of her non-employment in the sector, saying: “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’s constitution makes it clear that only full members can stand for elections, and they must be employed in the sector.

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

An “electoral commission report” was produced by two electoral officers, seconded by 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 Saftu electoral officers who signed the report, told amaBhungane 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 more than 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. He added that after Saftu’s leadership consulted with the old and new leadership of YNITU, the federation concluded the congress would have to be reconvened.

A letter signed by Saftu’s 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 next week, YNITU told Saftu of its decision to disaffiliate from the federation.

Lerato Mthunzi accused Saftu of interfering in the union and of handling the dispute in a “destructive and divisive manner”.

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

The labour department did not respond to questions about Dikolomela-Lengene’s complaint to the registrar and it was unclear whether an investigation was under way.

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 Lerato 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 its 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”.

Mthunzi says that on 8 November, she approached FNB with YNITU’s newly appointed president, Rich Sicina, “regarding the change in authorised signatories”. They were then told FNB would block the accounts.

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

In an answering affidavit, FNB employee Maanea Tsanwani said the claim that the two were still signatories “makes no sense”.

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”.

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 R1m 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 … 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 being 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.

Defending the boss

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

Meanwhile, Mthunzi and her faction are using a new account and have continued to run the union, which is actively lobbying in support of Mthunzi’s husband, who appears to have overseen a 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.

When Mthunzi was eventually suspended amid a public outcry, YNITU became one of his most vocal supporters.

In the meantime, since the Gauteng Health Department’s bizarre about-turn on whether Mthunzi was facing disciplinary charges when he was appointed last year, the DA’s Shadow Health Minister Jack Bloom said he had referred this matter to the Public Protector for investigation.

Writing in PoliticsWeb, Bloom said: “The department accuses me of ‘sensational allegations’ and ‘deliberate distortion of facts’ after I stated that Dr Mthunzi was appointed even though he was facing a disciplinary charge which should have disqualified him.

“I based my statement on an official reply by Gauteng Health MEC Nomathemba Mokgethi in which she says: ‘On 15 September 2021, the acting Head of Department, Dr Sibongile Zungu, approved recommendations that Dr A Mthunzi should be disciplined for contravening the Recruitment and Selection Policy. The Labour Relations Directorate was supposed to implement the said recommendations’.”

Bloom said when he asked who provided the false information that Mthunzi had not been found guilty on any misconduct charge, the reply was that it was the former Acting DDG: Hospital Services Freddy Kgongwana.

“According to Mokgethi: ‘The Selection Committee did not have knowledge or information on Dr Mthunzi’s pending disciplinary hearing while at Pholosong Hospital’, and the reason is that the Selection Committee was not aware as the information was not in his personal [file] nor in the register of pending disciplinary cases.”

Bloom said it was clear that Mthunzi was facing a disciplinary hearing when he was at Pholosong Hospital, and that it was wrong that this information was not given to the Selection Committee. "Why is the department now contradicting an official reply by the Health MEC?” he wrote.

“While they do concede that the former Acting Head of Department had signed a report recommending that Mthunzi be given a final written warning, which confirms he was facing a disciplinary charge, they now claim it was invalid as they did not provide him the opportunity to respond. I do not believe this is true.

“This is a cover-up by Mthunzi’s buddies in the department who are trying to shield him as they are themselves implicated in irregular activities, and confirms my suspicion that there was a plot to get Mthunzi appointed at Tembisa Hospital, which was followed by a surge of payments to suspicious companies that murdered whistleblower Babita Deokaran says were possibly corrupt.”

Deokaran had requested a forensic audit but it was never done.

“The Public Protector is already investigating the alleged irregular appointment of the Department’s CFO Lerato Madyo after a whistleblower referred it to them and also a referral by myself to the PSC, which passed it on to them.”

 

PoliticsWeb article – DA refers appointment of Tembisa Hospital CEO to PP (Open access)

News24 article – ‘Hijacked’ nurses’ union sides with embattled Tembisa Hospital boss (Restricted access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Tender tycoon scoops R36m from Tembisa in dubious dealings

 

ANC bigwigs score millions from Tembisa Hospital

 

Tembisa Hospital CFO and Gauteng Health boss suspended as SIU begins probe

 

 

 

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