Take that, Usaasa board: Whistleblower gets his job back
Public protector comes down hard on state agency for wrongfully dismissing CEO
State agency boss Lumko Mtimde has won a battle to get reinstated after he was suspended for blowing the whistle on fraudulent activities by board members.
Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Siyabonga Cwele has now dissolved the board in question and an interim board has been appointed. His spokesperson, Siyabonga Qoza, told Times Select the board was dissolved on Friday after a recommendation from the public protector that Mtimde be given his job back as CEO of the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (Usaasa).
Usaasa, a state-owned entity responsible for supporting the rollout of ICT services, was given seven days to reinstate the suspended CEO. This was recommended by Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane after Mtimde, who has close ties with the ANC, turned to her office for remedial action.
“Lift the suspension of Mtimde within seven days after the public protector’s report is issued and extend an apology to Mr Mtimde within 15 days for the ‘irrational and inappropriate manner’ he was handled,” said Mkhwebane.
Mtimde was suspended by the Usaasa board for alleged breach of contract, gross negligence and incompetence in carrying out his work. He was also accused of failing to follow reasonable instructions from the board and being dishonest.Mtimde said he was suspended after reporting fraudulent activities by the Usaasa board to the national Treasury and to the Department of Telecommunications.
He received a letter of intention to suspend him in February, and he was suspended the following month.
Mtimde turned to the public protector and the Labour Court for help. The urgency of his application was dismissed by the Labour Court in May, but the protector found that the Usaasa board violated section 3 of the Protected Disclosure Act. It provides that no employee may be subjected to any occupational detriment by his employer after making protected disclosure.
The act introduced provisions for employees to report unlawful or irregular conduct by employers and fellow employees, while providing for the protection of employees who blow the whistle. The act was amended by the Protected Disclosures Amendment Act, Act 5 of 2017.
“The board violated the law by prohibiting the public protector to conduct investigations based on complaints lodged by CEO of Usaasa, Lumko Mtimde. Instead, the board irregularly chose to suspend Mtimde and take disciplinary action against him despite the public protector and minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services’ directive that they postpone the matter,” said Mkhwebane.She said the national Treasury and auditor general found that the board contravened the Public Finance Management Act, Electronic Communications Act and Usaasa policies in the appointment of the company secretary.
Mkhwebane further said the Telecommunications and Postal Services minister should take decisive and appropriate action against the Usaasa board of directors for alleged violations that include the “unnecessary, reckless and unconscionable” use of public funds.
“Ensure board members are held personally liable for legal costs incurred after they were made aware of the complaint lodged with the public protector as well as for monies concerned with the disciplinary enquiry against Mtimde,” Mkhwebane said.
Mtimde said the saga had been a learning experience.
“My hope is that for members of the board it will also serve a similar purpose as they go about playing their variant roles in society. All of us must always remember – it is always SA first, not anything or anyone else.
“It should also be a signal and guide to others in state institutions about what not to do in relation to the privileged roles and fiduciary responsibilities we are afforded to play in society,” he said.
Mtimde said his suspension was hard on his family.
“I derive no joy in any of this. It obviously negatively affected me and my family. But importantly, it feeds into the troubling narrative about incompetent people getting appointed to run state-owned entities while also creating unfair impressions about my competence and integrity.”