The KwaZulu-Natal provincial Social Development Department, which is under pressure to act against “Blanket-gate” officials currently on suspension, is in a tight corner after a “sloppy” presentation at the officials’ hearing resulted in them being allowed back to work.
The eight top officials — including the department’s chief financial officer, Brian Ndaba — were placed on suspension in August after a forensic investigation fingered them in the irregular procurement of 48 000 blankets for a staggering R22 million.
To save face and stave off a possible confrontation with Premier Sihle Zikalala, who made it clear that the officials should not be allowed to return to work until they had been cleared, the department is currently attempting to fight the ruling that the suspensions should be lifted.
When the blanket scandal was exposed in April, the department claimed that the blankets were part of items meant to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, it has since emerged that the procurement of the blankets was used to enrich service providers and some officials.
Apparently the KZN Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) has for months been trying to get the department to update it on the disciplinary processes against the implicated officials, but to no avail.
The Witness can reveal that the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and the chairperson of the disciplinary committee, Advocate Marumo Moerane SC, have both made rulings against the department.
This is despite a recent Special Investigative Unit (SIU) and forensic investigation instituted by Zikalala recommending that the officials should be placed on suspension.
In his report, dated March 25, which The Witness has seen, Moerane said despite the department’s position that allowing the suspended officials to return to work could jeopardise the disciplinary case against the officials, the department failed to submit crucial evidence required for him to rule in its favour.
“In particular, the employer has not submitted any evidence that establishes or tends to establish that the presence of the employee at the workplace at this stage, that is, after the investigation has been completed, might endanger the well-being or safety of any person or state property.”
Moerane’s ruling was in relation to an application lodged by one of the top officials in the department, chief director Ayanda Mbatha, that her suspension be lifted.
“I find that the employer has failed to persuade me that the extension of the suspension of Ms Ayanda Mbatha is justified.
“I, consequently, decline to extend the suspension of Ms Ayanda Mbatha,” Moerane said in his ruling.
This follows on the heels of another ruling by the CCMA, which ordered the department to allow Ndaba to return to work.
One of the sources told The Witness that the department has also been ordered to allow two more of the suspended officials to go return to work, bringing to four the number of officials whose applications to have their suspension lifted have been granted.
“However, what we find puzzling is that the department is yet to comply with the rulings. Upon receiving copies of the ruling, the department should either allow the officials back to work or notify them that it is appealing the ruling.
“So far the department has not done any of those things. It has just kept quiet,” the source said.
DA provincial spokesperson on social development, Elma Rabe, said the ruling confirmed the party’s fears that the case against the eight officials was being “bungled”.
“When Scopa asked the department for a progress report on the matter they kept ducking and diving,” she said.
“As the DA we are concerned about what we view as attempts to protect those who have been behind the blanket scandal.”
The lifting of the suspensions happens as the SIU is gunning for service providers who it claims colluded with the implicated officials to loot the department’s coffers.
“The prices were found to be excessive and without justifiable reasons,” the SIU said in its latest report.
“The SIU will now seek to recover these payments … and has just received authority to brief counsel on these matters,” the report added.
Provincial Social Development spokesperson Mhlaba Memela said the department has yet to study Moerane’s ruling.
“Upon the finalisation of that process, the department will then take a decision on the matter,’ said Memela.
However, he said the department will not be commenting on issues relating to specific individuals who have been implicated in the blanket scandal.
“Due to the sensitivity around this matter, we cannot discuss the names of officials involved until the matter has been finalised.
“The position of the department is that the finalisation of the disciplinary hearing will determine if officials will return to work or not,” he said.