Confusion mounts at TCTA as chairperson turns to PR agency for help

Zodwa Manase has hired professionals to help keep her story straight at the entity that brings SA water from Lesotho.


Late last month when The Citizen started fielding questions to the chairperson of the board of the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) Zodwa Manase, she felt she was so “under attack” that she promptly appointed a PR firm, Vuma Reputation Management, to deal with our questions.

She at one point claimed this wasn’t the case, though, and that the PR company in question was being hired at around that time anyway. However, Vuma’s founder and CEO, Janine Hills, openly admitted in emailed correspondence with The Citizen that they were specifically hired to deal with The Citizen’s queries and that Manase had made an “honest mistake” in suggesting otherwise.

Manase also said the decision to hire Vuma had been taken by “the board” last month. However, the boards of state-owned entities such as the TCTA – which among other things is responsible for the Lesotho Highlands Water Project – typically don’t make decisions on how to spend their entity’s budget, usually leaving this to senior management.

A question on who would keep the board accountable for its spending decisions, which was directed to Manase through Hills, has still not been answered.

Such alleged interference in the day-to-day spending decisions of the TCTA is among the reasons why well-placed whistleblowers at the entity approached The Citizen to raise concerns about Manase in the first place last month.

There has not been a permanent CEO at the TCTA since October 2016, a situation Manase’s detractors say plays into her hands as it allows her to interfere directly in management and spending decisions at the entity. Manase was, however, only appointed as chairperson by the then water minister Nomvula Mokonyane late last year.

After the TCTA’s deputy chairperson, Jacob Modise, was asked if he was aware of the board’s supposed collective decision to hire Vuma, a “response” eventually came back through Vuma, which explained that Manase was actually the one providing all the answers to our questions.

This, however, completely defeated the purpose of having posed the question to Modise about Manase in the first instance. The question remained unanswered.

As her final answer today on how Vuma was appointed, Manase maintained that “the supply chain process for the appointment of the service provider was substantially performed by the former acting CEO and finalised by the new acting CEO”.

She said the “duration of the engagement cannot be determined at this stage, but the fee will not exceed R500 000, inclusive of VAT”.

She added that they needed Vuma to safeguard the TCTA’s reputation and ensure it continues to “enjoy a favourable rating from agencies” to enable it to raise future capital.

A place of many acting CEOs

On March 19, The Citizen met at our offices with Manase, Hills, one of her staff members, Tshepo Sefotlhelo, and the then newly appointed acting CEO Muzi Chonco, who we have subsequently learnt barely survived in that position for two weeks.

MORE: Troubled TCTA water entity appoints new acting CEO

We have since been directing questions to the TCTA through Sefotlhelo, who carries the title of “executive director of operations” at Vuma.

Among the issues that have caused alleged discord among members of the TCTA board and senior management has been that its former chief operating officer Jeanette Nhlapo was reinstated to a fourth term to the water entity, allegedly with a questionable R5 million gratuity. Manase, however, told The Citizen on March 19 that this gratuity had not yet been paid.

Manase’s role in having appointed Chonco, firstly as a board member and then as the short-lived acting CEO after his predecessor in the acting role (chief risk officer Leonard Radzuma) resigned in alleged frustration is also understood to have been a source of contention.

READ MORE: EXCLUSIVE: Why Lesotho Highlands Water Project still in ‘administrative crisis’

Manase confirmed during our meeting that she had had every right to appoint Chonco to the board. She insisted that the entity’s delegation of authority entitled her to make a “short-term” appointment without consulting the HR subcommittee of the board, despite documentation in the Citizen’s possession that suggests otherwise.

She also maintained that the decision to appoint Vuma had been a board resolution taken on the 23rd of February, which happened to be two days after The Citizen sent Manase our first set of questions. Nevertheless, she said this was a coincidence and was not related to the questions she had received from The Citizen.

However, when asked later in the same meeting what the primary motive for the board had been to take such an operational decision to hire Vuma, Manase said they had turned to the PR agency for assistance because the questions Manase had received from The Citizen made her feel like she was “under attack”.

When challenged that she was apparently contradicting herself, Manase denied this.

In subsequent emailed correspondence, Hills admitted that her client had not kept her story straight. She wrote: “It really was a blatant honest mistake…” She explained the reason for Manase’s “mistake” had been that her “client has not been media trained, and was rather nervous”.

She added that Vuma’s role “has been ring-fenced around a specific job” and that “we have been reassured that all process has been followed”.

Vuma’s letter of appointment has, however, still not been sent to us.

RELATED: Another top executive leaves crucial water agency, allegedly in disgust

When we contacted TCTA deputy chairperson Jacob Modise last week (when he was still talking to us), he expressed surprise at Chonco’s appointment, saying he had not been aware his fellow board member had become the new acting CEO.

Modise, who is also the chair of the risk and audit subcommittee, was asked whether his subcommittee had any obligation to keep checks and balances on Manase’s actions. He responded: “The Sub-Committee can take whatever action is appropriate for the transgressions.”

The Citizen subsequently learnt that Chonco’s appointment has now been set aside. The website now shows that the entity’s chief strategy officer, Prof Ola Busari, was appointed as the new acting CEO on Friday. Nhlapo remains the COO.

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When queried about how it was possible that there was now a “new new acting CEO within the space of two weeks” Sefotlhelo responded: “As per our discussion, as the chair Zodwa [Manase] has the powers to appoint [an] interim acting CEO until the next board meeting, so the board decided on the Prof this past Friday at the meeting. He will be in place until they find a [permanent] replacement.”

In a later response, however, Manase said “the appointment of Prof Busari as acting CEO is a board decision and not [that of] any individual”.

Along with the yet-to-be-sent response from Vuma on their letter of appointment (UPDATE: This letter was sent on the afternoon of 29 March), The Citizen continues to wait for Nhlapo’s letter of appointment or contract. Added to the list is now a response on what led to the “firing” of Chonco in favour of Busari, as well as what Modise may or may not know about the decisions of the board that he sits on.

The Citizen will publish any further responses and any other rights of reply from the TCTA when they are forthcoming.

ALSO READ: Fitch awards AA+ rating to five TCTA projects

Correction: an earlier version of this story said Chonco’s letter of appointment was not sent to us. This was incorrect, as Vuma pointed out they had sent us this correspondence on 22 March.

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