Tom Nkosi vs Thandi Shongwe: A story, its real beginning

Tom Nkosi vs Thandi Shongwe: A story, its real beginning
FIRST BLOOD: A decade-long furore between veteran communicator Tom Nkosi (L) and former Mpumalanga legislature speaker, now social development MEC, Thandi Shongwe is threatening to boil over, bringing to the precipice of the cauldron the pus of personal-political wounds of the Mabuza era. GRAPHIC BY 013NEWS/MLM

A slow brewing war between an MEC and a journalist – over issues that both admit have become more personal than about general accountability – is now fast coming to a boil.

Ziwaphi journalist Tom Nkosi Friday this week asked for the retraction of a story published by 013NEWS Thursday about claims made by social development MEC Thandi Shongwe that Nkosi had been targeting her because she refused to pay him an amount of R5 million for designing the current Mpumalanga legislature logo.

Nkosi said the article impacted on his reputation because first of all it was based on a statement that was supposedly released by Shongwe but which didn’t have the name of the person that released it at the end. It was only written that it was “issued by the office of the MEC”, with Shongwe’s spokesman Comfort Ngobe neither confirming nor denying it.

The statement, which got shared over WhatsApp groups, gives the other side of the story to explain a series of stories that have been published on Shongwe and the legislature during her time as speaker and answers why the Ziwaphi newspaper had been dominated by these stories. It recalls the start of the problem in 2011 which ended up in the hands of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, who found in September 2019 that the decision that caused Nkosi to not get the job as spokesperson of the Mpumalanga legislature in 2011 was improper.

The department is currently not denying the statement shared on 13 May 2020 and it is that statement that got 013NEWS into even more details, including how current spokeswoman Zama Gamede was appointed in 2011 and how Nkosi became fed up with a state he had worked for, given his all, for almost all his life after he was not chosen for the post. 

A politician himself who was trained by the ANC, working as a vital cog in its anti-Apartheid propaganda machinery, he would later work in government communication systems in the province when the first democratically elected government was installed in 1994. The 54-year-old Nkosi founded the Ziwaphi newspaper in April 2007 as an investigative provincial newspaper, two years before his comrade David Mabuza would come to take over power as Premier of Mpumalanga. 

He founded The Congress, Mpumalanga’s ANC journal in 1992 and helped found other government and website publication platforms since 1994.

Nkosi left government two months later after founding Ziwaphi, having served in various government positions – including being spokesperson for Mpumalanga’s first Premier Mathews Phosa  – and later plied his trade as senior communications and people’s affairs manager at sugar manufacturer RCL Foods in Malalane, Mbombela.

The Ziwaphi newspaper was initially intended to cover development issues in Mpumalanga. “But there was corruption [in the province],” Nkosi said one day when he spoke to Media Magazine for their September 2013 issue.

“Stories were being lost, not being reported, so I decided to focus on these stories. We became very popular and people started feeding us with stories… We developed lots of followers – and lots of enemies!” he said.

Tom Nkosi vs Thandi Shongwe: A story, its real beginning
Tom Nkosi who is also a former legislature employee

Nkosi had worked as senior communications manager in the governments of Phosa, Ndaweni Mahlangu and Thabang Makwetla including other senior positions in other provincial departments then, but not in Mabuza and Mtshweni-Tsipane’s governments…

The newspaper was funded by government agency, the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) and also survived on government adverts. He would later serve on the board of the MDDA before he was elected chairperson of the board of the Association of Independant Publishers (AIP) in July 2018. 

His Ziwaphi newspaper’s first major stories during those days where the political assassinations in Mpumalanga and the maladministration of the controversial provincial government of Mabuza until 2010 when Mabuza fired a slavo, drawing a line in the sand for  Nkosi to stop “attacking” his government. 

Ziwaphi had written serially on the murders of prominent ANC politicians in the Mpumalanga government, like Mbombela speaker Jimmy Mohlala who was gunned down in 2009 and former arts and culture department spokesman Sammy Mpatlanyane who was shot dead in 2010, eHlanzeni chief whip Johan Ndlovu who was shot and killed near his home in Thulamahashe in the Mhala district on 5 January 2011 as well as the alleged misallocation of taxpayers money.

Apparently since 2008, politicians in Mpumalanga have been murdered every January in the province.

In January 2014, Ziwaphi reported that Mabuza had denied allegations he formed a “dirty tricks” task team that promised those recruited an amount of R3 million as well as government jobs if they quashed the claims that Mabuza was behind the political assassinations in the infamous province that has become notorious for such.

Mabuza, through his then spokesman Zibonele Mncwango, admitted to being aware of the allegations and challenged his accusers to come forward and present them to the police.

Nkosi told the magazine in 2013 that when he was fired at RCL Foods the issue that he was “attacking” the Mpumalanga government came out during a disciplinary hearing conducted by the company against him. Mabuza had apparently gone to complain at RCL Foods that the company was funding Nkosi to attack government through his Ziwaphi newspaper.

Tom Nkosi vs Thandi Shongwe: A story, its real beginning
Former Mpumalanga Premier and now deputy president DD Mabuza

In 2011, Nkosi, Zamagambu Memela-Gamede and another woman identified as Mrs Julies were interviewed by the Mpumalanga provincial government for the post of legislature spokesperson.

An investigation report compiled by Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane in September 2019 found Nkosi scored the highest points during the interview, followed by Julies and Memela-Gamede the lowest and therefore Memela-Gamede was improperly appointed.

ALSO RELATED: Media is supposed to be governed by press code

Mabuza had allegedly influenced the appointment of Memela-Gamede against Nkosi with  whom he had political differences – the irregular appointment taking place allegedly through then legislature secretary Linda Tshabalala and then speaker Sipho Lubisi. But on Saturday Tom said he “withdraws the entire part of my statement which created an impression that [Mr Linda Tshabalala] caused the appointment of the MEC’s wife at the legislature”.

The ANC in Mpumalanga had accused Nkosi of taking sides in the factional squabbles of the province, accused of working with factions opposed to Mabuza’s tyrannical rule in Mpumalanga as Premier and ANC provincial leader, like former Premier Mathews Phosa, the late Cope leader James Nkambule and SACP leaders who had been vocal about patronage, corruption, maladministration and the purging of capable comrades by Mabuza.

Mkhwebane said the choosing of Memela-Gamede who came third place during an interview was “improper” and the “argument forwarded by the legislature that the decision was based on gender imbalance principles cannot be accepted as the legislature would have then appointed Ms Julies, another candidate, who is female and performed better than Memela-Gamede,” Mkhwebane said last year of the 2011 decision, recommending that such doesn’t occur again. 

Tom Nkosi vs Thandi Shongwe: A story, its real beginning
Current legislature spokeswoman Zamagambu Memela-Gamede, wife of former Mpumalanga agriculture MEC Andries Gamede who was improperly appointed in 2011

The first story that Nkosi wrote about social development MEC Thandi Shongwe was in October 2016, more than two years after she was elected the speaker of the provincial legislature.

Shongwe alleged that when she took over from Lubisi as speaker after the 2014 general elections, Nkosi allegedly approached her as a comrade and asked her to consider reversing the Lubisi decision so that he would be employed in that legislature spokesperson position but then 3 years passed, Shongwe said, “and I could not reverse the decision”, Nkosi got “more aggrieved” and “started the campaign”.

The provincial investigative bi-weekly exposed the purchase of two Mercedes Benz SUVs within a short period of time at close to R3 million of taxpayers money.

The speaker Shongwe then bought the first Merc for R1.2 million, a iridium silver Mercedes Benz ML 500, in 2014 but in 2015 the Merc crashed and forced Shongwe to purchase another one, for R1.5 million this time, a Mercedes Benz GLE 500  – also iridium silver in colour. Ziwaphi reported Shongwe’s choice of colour was allegedly to conceal the new purchase from opposition parties who would want to know why she bought another one. 

In her reply to this, Shongwe said the Ziwaphi report was a “complete fabrication” because an assessment report from a panelbeater had “indicated severe damages” to the 2014 Merc “which had also impacted on the safety features of the vehicle”. 

She said it was “a deliberate manufacturing of information intent at misleading and creating a wrong impression” and “absolutely incorrect and a distortion of facts to suggest the accident had resulted in minor damages” as the car spent 10 months with a panelbeater and was due to be disposed off during the course of the 2016/2017 financial year. She said Nkosi had sources inside the legislature who were leaking information to him and seemingly from officials who were on the other side of Mabuza’s faction.

In 2014 when MEC Shongwe became the speaker of the legislature Mr Nkosi wanted that decision to be reversed and that he be appointed in that senior position, unfortunately three years has passed and Shongwe could not reverse the outcomes of 2011 and he became more aggrieved and he started to campaign against Shongwe. He took the matter to the public protector where he the matter was unsuccessful. Secondly he demanded to be paid R5 million for designing the logo of the legislature while he was still an employee in the legislature. On investigation he was found that he was not the only employee who contributed in the designing of the logo and there were no agreements written down. MEC Shongwe refused that he be paid the R5 million and he became worse. Now he is using the SACP to fight his own battles of self advancement interest after his attempt to use Ziwaphi newspaper [failed],” reads the statement allegedly sent out by Shongwe and distributed on social media.

In 2017 Ziwaphi reported about a tenderpreneur who allegedly refused to be part of an alleged deal in Shongwe’s office that would see a R15 million tender inflated to R20.5 million if the tenderpreneur agreed to partner with a company linked to Shongwe’s company called ‘Frugacode’. The owner of the company called ‘Sarafusion (PTY) LTD that got the tender to provide SAP maintenance and support at the legislature, a Mr B Musaruwa, said his contract was ended abruptly by Shongwe’s office when he refused to partner with Frugacode.

Tom Nkosi vs Thandi Shongwe: A story, its real beginning
Ziwaphi publisher Tom Nkosi who is also a former legislature employee who allegedly fights with social development MEC Thandi Shongwe for not paying him a R5 million that he allegedly demanded for designing the current logo of the Mpumalanga legislature

But since Nkosi began writing serially on the shenanigans of the Mpumalanga legislature he was at the same time an elected leader of the SACP – the ANC’s alliance partner, and spokespersons began isolating him, not picking up his calls nor answering his media enquiries and calling on the communist party to distance itself from Nkosi’s “smear campaigns” against its provincial government and leaders.

This week Nkosi revealed he had healthy working relations with Shongwe’s spokesman Comfort Ngobe while he was spokesman for the finance department and how that had now ended. He said since 17 April 2020 he had sent media enquiries to Ngobe on a story he was writing on Shongwe, only to be ignored.

“I tried unsuccessfully to get a response from the departmental spokesperson, Comfort Ngobe. I sent text messages and made voice calls but he ignored my calls and the sent messages,” Nkosi said when he spoke to the 013NEWS reporter.

He said he then laid a complaint against Ngobe to departmental head Xoli Mahlalela on 11 May 2020 and “the same day the department sent a media statement attacking me in person.

“The MEC, as a leader in government, should know that she is bound by certain protocols. In this case a government communication policy which has been adopted by the same government that she serves. In terms of that policy, a political principal is also a spokesperson, meaning that in whatever she says she is representing the department,” said Nkosi.

He said Memela-Gamede got 54% on the interview, Julies 55%, while he got 78% and said it was a lie he never won the matter with the Public Protector, sending the 013NEWS reporter the document and threatening to open a criminal charge if 013NEWS doesn’t pull down the story it published on Thursday based on the circulating statement attributed to Shongwe.

SEE HERE: Journalist targets me for not paying him R5m, Thandi Shongwe

He said the article was defamatory on his image and reputation as an investigative journalist because it failed to prove that he could not get the job of legislature speaker in 2011; that the article failed to show how he demanded R5 million from Shongwe for designing the legislature logo and how he sought to get adverts from the state for his newspaper. 

He denied he ever demanded R5 million from Shongwe and said he entered a competition at the legislature to design the logo. He said later he was approached by a then former official of the legislature he used to work with who asked him whether he had received his “prize money” for winning the competition of designing the legislature logo.

013NEWS publisher Mpumelelo Mashifane said the reason they published “the circulating MEC’s statement” is because the people of Mpumalanga had wondered why the Ziwaphi newspaper had only been about the Mpumalanga legislature “out of everything happening in the province”.

“We were also wondering why and when we saw the statement this week we said ‘Here’s an opportunity to come closer to the matter’ and we said, ‘now the truth will come out, we publish this and we expect all of them to come out from the bush and tell us the whole truth’. We believe in the final revelation of truth than just an individual standing and we believe more is still to come so that the matter is understood by all.

“Apart from the role it plays to hold public officials accountable, the media also has the important responsibility of self regulation. Whenever issues that relate to the functioning of the media are brought to the fore each of us as colleagues have a responsibility to report on it with the purpose of bringing the truth to the citizens who most often than not rely on the noble profession of journalism to unpack the complexities of how government relates with communities and stakeholders,” he said Saturday mid-day.

(edited by ZK)

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