Thuso Bloem was suspended from his position as a senior administrator at the Greater Taung Local Municipality in North West province on May 17, 2011, by a municipal manager who, having been accused of corruption, had himself been suspended that same day.
While working as a legal clerk at the municipality Bloem had found the then-municipal manager, the late Mpho Mofokeng, to have run up R56 000 in personal expenses on the municipality’s account and awarded a R188 000 tender to a family member.
Bloem made a protected disclosure to the then-mayor Itumeleng Makgalemele.
The Municipal Council suspended Mofokeng, but the municipal manager refused to vacate his office and appears to have terrified his co-workers by reportedly openly carrying a handgun to work each day. Mofokeng applied to the Mafikeng High Court to set aside his suspension, but the court dismissed his application. Still, Mofokeng refused to vacate his office.
On the very day Mofokeng was suspended, he issued Bloem – who had by then been promoted to senior administrator – with a suspension letter of his own, alleging that he abused his municipal vehicle, along with other accusations of impropriety.
The municipality refused to recognise Bloem as a whistleblower, and denied that he suffered occupational detriment, as defined in the Protected Disclosures Act.
This is a case of a suspended official suspending another.
While under suspension, Mofokeng approached the Labour Court to interdict Bloem from entering the municipal offices, but this case was dismissed with costs. All the while, Mofokeng was using municipal funds to fight what Bloem says were personal battles.
Public Protector’s report
Few of these facts are disputed. They are detailed in a 2018 Public Protector’s report which found that Bloem had indeed suffered occupational detriment, and ordered the municipality to reinstate him and, within 60 days, to institute civil action to recover all wasteful expenditure against all municipal officials, whether still employed or not.
The municipality was also ordered by the Public Protector to table her report before the council – something that was apparently never done.
Read: Municipalities just don’t listen – Auditor-General (2018)
The municipality applied to the High Court to have the Public Protector’s report set aside. It remains locked up in the court process.
Bloem was then dismissed from his job after a disciplinary process, which the municipality deemed procedurally fair and just.
Bloem took his dismissal to the Labour Court, which dismissed the case, arguing that internal remedies at the municipality had not been exhausted.
It remains unclear why the municipality decided to get rid of Bloem but not Mofokeng, who steadfastly refused to vacate his office, despite his suspension by the Municipal Council.
The Public Protector came down squarely in Bloem’s corner and found that he was unlawfully dismissed and suffered occupational detriment.
This was not the first time Bloem, also a South African Municipal Workers Union shop steward, had blown the whistle on corrupt practices at Taung Municipality. In 2008, he received reports of fraud and corruption against the previous municipal manager, and lodged a criminal case at the Taung Police Station. The then-municipal manager was suspended from her post.
Bloem, meanwhile, has remained without work for the better part of a decade, despite the Public Protector finding in his favour, with a claim for backpay now running into millions of rands.
“This shows that whistleblower protection in SA does not work,” he says. “My case is a perfect example of what can happen – you do your job honestly, report corruption and fraud as I was required by law to do, and I get dismissed, with no source of income.
“This sends a terrible message to other would-be whistleblowers,” says Bloem.
“The municipality jumps to lawyers and court not to find resolution, but to frustrate those it considers bothersome.”
The Public Protector’s report gives further substance to Bloem’s claim: “The fostering of a culture of disclosure is a constitutional imperative as it is at the heart of the fundamental principles aimed at the achievement of a just society based on democratic values.”
The Taung municipality relies on transfers from national and provincial governments for nearly 80% of its budget, according to Municipal Money, a database on municipal finances around the country run by National Treasury, and has received qualified audits for the last three financial years for which figures are available.
Internal accounts supplied to Moneyweb show an amount of R4.7 million spent on legal fees for the 18 months to January 2019 – much of this apparently related to disciplinary matters against current and former staff.
Bloem says R27 million has been spent on legal fees in the two financial years to 2019, most of this on disciplinary matters. Moneyweb asked the municipality to confirm this, but no reply was received. What we have been shown is a ledger detailing scores of payments made to various law firms for what appear to be disciplinary matters. In one case, more than R200 000 was spent on a disciplinary matter involving a municipal employee, and in another case, an amount of nearly R130 000 was spent.
The Centre for Good Governance and Social Justice, a non-profit organisation aimed at restoring sound governance at local government level, has taken up the baton on Bloem’s behalf. It has asked the Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) to investigate Bloem’s allegations and take remedial action, including a full audit of all litigation undertaken by the municipality.
“We cannot make progress in restoring sound local government unless we provide absolute protection for whistleblowers and stop officials from using municipal funds to launch vexatious and frivolous cases under the cover of disciplinary hearings,” says Mandla Mpempe of the Centre for Good Governance and Social Justice.
“There must be personal consequences for officials engaging in this type of behaviour.”
Moneyweb sent detailed questions on the case to the Greater Taung Local Municipality, but no reply was received, despite email and phone follow-ups.