The power battles that paralysed Eswatini Electricity Company

The power utility has for years been plagued by internal troubles – back stabbings, sexual misconduct of those in power, corruption and more. These things affect how the organisation delivers on its mandate.

Like a Shakespearean play, Eswatini Electricity Company (ECC) has all the drama, sexual scandal, corruption, backstabbing and, most of all, the political intrigue that would make a beautiful Marvel sequel. Except, of course, this is a public company that involves human lives, and cannot be run like a beer stokvel.

The real battle expresses itself in the fight to control the position of Managing Director following the retirement of long-serving MD, Meshack Kunene. Kunene recently retired after a prolonged absence after being infected with Coronavirus last year. An engineer by training, Kunene is considered a child of EEC who knew every nook and cranny of the organization by heart. After all, he worked his way up the ranks of EEC, ultimately becoming MD in 2017. He has had an impressive and illustrious 36-year-long career that has taken him to all the highs and lows of the organization.

But his life at EEC was as controversial as it was tumultuous. For example, around 2013 while still General Manager of operations, he was suspended by then MD Sengiphile Simelane.

Simelane sent Kunene packing by not renewing his contract. After spending months at home, Simelane was then pressured by the government to bring back Kunene and give him a new contract. It was only when Simelane left that Kunene became an MD.

[EEC former Managing Director Meshack Kunene. He recently retired on medical grounds]

Even then, he was not always the chosen one. He owed his appointment to the late Barnabas Dlamini who vetoed the then board Chairman S’thofeni Ginindza’s preferred candidate, Sabelo Simelane. Simelane was a clear favourite to occupy the position and had in fact impressed the interviewing panel and then endorsed by the board. It also helped that he was Ginindza’s acolyte. But this alone was not enough to impress the late Prime Minister who argued that Simelane was too young for such a senior position. Because EEC is a Category A public enterprise, positions as high as MD and General Manager of Finance, the equivalent of Chief Financial Officer, need the sanction of the Public Enterprise Unit.

It was here that Simelane failed and, just like that, Kunene took over the reins at the power utility. At the time he was already above the 60-years retirement age. Simelane saw himself as heir apparent. It helped that he came from the same family as Mnguni Simelane, the former Correctional Services Commissioner. It became clear he would replace Kunene when his retirement time came only for him to mess up his prospects spectacularly. 

EEC, where bedroom politics rule

In recent times, the one defining feature of the power utility is the love entanglements between general staff, managers and Executive Committee (EXCO) members. It would not be an unfair assessment that EEC has become a cesspit of unethical relationships that cut across different layers of the organisational bureaucracy and hierarchy. It was this relationship that ruined the professional trajectory of dismissed General Manager of Customer Services, Sabelo Simelane. His case is a sad tale of what happens when a good, disciplined and hard-working man gets failed by his own insatiable libido.

Having been earmarked to take over as the next Managing Director, Simelane found himself failed not just by his own sexual ill-discipline but also by a conspiracy orchestrated by other Exco members who felt threatened by his possible rise to glory.

They entrapped him with the one weakness they knew he had: his love for women. And love women Simelane did. Despite having a highly decorated wife in Chartered Accountant Makhosazana Mhlanga, the first black woman to be a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Simelane still couldn't be satisfied. Before being dismissed for sexual misconduct, after a compromising recording of him making sexual advances to a fellow EEC employee, he had previously been caught red handed with an EEC cashier who, interestingly, was also married within the organisation.

Sifiso Dhlamini. He left EEC rather unceremoniously. 

Simelane was then a regional engineer, and his embarrassing sex scandal forced him to resign. He subsequently mushroomed as an employee of MTN. The woman, meanwhile, was divorced and her home at Mpolonjeni shuttered.

Simelane left the organisation bitter at all those who had celebrated his forced resignation. When he was rehired years later, first as EEC Distribution Manager then Head of strategy he came with an axe to grind. His eyes were set on those who had orchestrated his forced resignation who were by now senior managers and leaders.

His return obviously troubled other Exco members. And his close proximity to Ginindza, the board chairman, caused internal resentment. To many, he was seen as too strict, too demanding and too professional. His quick rise within EEC stems, in part, from his own no-nonsense attitude and work ethic, earning him praise from both foes and friends.

He was considered the engine that makes EEC tick. But Simelane’s inability to outgrow the bitterness and vengeance against some of the people who engineered his forced resignation was his greatest undoing. It only helped to make him more enemies rather than friends. In fact, his relationship with other exco members was at best frosty and at worst toxic. His rise as MD was therefore seen as career threatening to many Exco members.

To demonstrate the breakdown of relations with his juniors and peers the dramatic resignation of Sifiso Dhlamini, then EEC Corporate Communications Manager, becomes instructive. So bad was the relationship between the two that as soon as Simelane was promoted to General Manager of Customer Services, forcing Dhlamini to report directly to him, he simply resigned before the memo could even be pinned properly on the notice board. The relationship was that bad. In truth, Simelane had nothing solid against Dhlamini except widespread allegations that he was living a flamboyant and questionable lifestyle.

The bone of contention was the many road shows initiated by Dhlamini’s office that came with a lot of tenders and procurements. It didn't help that he was in the circle of eventually suspended and ultimately fired Purchasing Manager, Ephraem Kunene.

Golden opportunity

The golden opportunity to the growing list of Simelane’s enemies came in the form of Nosipho Simelane (nee Dlamini), whom he was courting and wanted to have sex with. Nosipho had troubles of her own that needed a powerful person of Simelane’s calibre if she wanted to make her stay at EEC tenable. As a depo Manager with only a B’tech degree, she had benefited from an internal company policy of advancing the academic careers of middle managers. As a policy, the company would help middle management obtain degrees through a collaboration with the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Nosipho was ultimately sponsored to go on study leave for a specified period and under specific conditions. However, as fate would have it, she failed one subject in Cape Town and needed an extension of her study leave. Some people within EEC were not happy and felt going beyond the specified study period would set a dangerous precedent organisationally and financially. The result was that Nosipho decided to go on a forced unpaid study leave but on her return after only just a semester, her bosses charged her for violating the terms of her study leave. This is where Simelane came in. He did not just want to get into Nosipho’s pants but he also promised to make her troubles with EEC disappear.

At the time, Nosipho’s troubles were known by other Exco members and they knew she was their person to finally get rid of Simelane. Nosipho was caught between the sea and the devil; trap and record Simelane making improper sexual overtures or see her pending disciplinary case continue and possibly lead to her dismissal. It is now water under the bridge that she saved her skin and threw Simelane under the bus.

Even though the core of Simelane’s charges were centered around sexual harassment, an additional charge of intimidation, insulting or threatening to assault the General Manager of Operations, Vusi Gama, was added.

As it turned out, when Simelane was served with his suspension letter he called one of the Exco members but unfortunately for him the guy was not at the head office. Understanding what was at play here he quickly went to Gama’s office and blasted him.

If I recall well he even said things like, ‘kodwa yini lamasimba leningenta wona yemadoda? (what bullishit is this?).’ By this he was referring to the suspension because he knew it was the exco members who wanted him out of the company. He was clear that this suspension was cooked by those who were scared of him becoming MD. The General Managers knew that Sabelo would expel them when he got to be MD,” said our source.

At the disciplinary hearing, Simelane was cleared of the assault charges but found guilty of the sexual misconduct charges. There were wild celebrations by fellow Exco members when Simelane was ultimately dismissed and, for a while, there was a deep sigh of relief and a peace of mind within the higher echelons of EEC power.

The token MD

Perhaps the greatest casualty of the EEC internal power battles has to be that of General Manager of Finance, Lawrence Sibandze. Sibandze was dismissed for a slew of allegations emanating from his refusal to accept a reshuffle by then MD, Kunene. The MD wanted his long-time friend and current Acting MD, Patrick Mathunjwa, to occupy the second highest position at the power utility. The two had a history together, they had attended the same school and had been with the organisation for years.

The then incumbent, Sibandze, was an outsider who had worked in various private organisations but was now EEC’s second in command. The perfect opportunity to muscle Sibandze out of his position, and ultimately out of EEC, presented itself when an internal forensic investigation fingered the Purchasing Manager, Ephraim Kunene, as being deeply corrupt.

Following reports that as much as E400 million had gone missing at the organisation led to the S’thofeni Ginindza-led board to launch a forensic audit in 2018. This culminated in the suspension of the Purchasing Manager. The forensic investigation was meant to probe allegations of theft and/or fraud and/or corruption within the organisation.

The Board of Directors and management subsequently engaged Prodigy, a South African forensic service provider, to conduct an expeditious and comprehensive forensic investigation into alleged stock losses and procurement of material.

In particular, Prodigy was to determine the existence and extent of the theft, fraud or corruption as well as conduct lifestyle audits of EEC officials and suppliers suspected to be involved in such practices. Kunene, the recently retired MD, detested his purchasing manager and kept on suggesting that owing to his background as a former IT officer with a technical background, he had manipulated systems and covered his tracks. But the suspended Purchasing Manager refused to go down quietly.

Very soon questions began to be asked about Prodigy itself especially after reports emerged that the tender to investigate the allegations of fraud against the Purchasing Manager had been awarded rather controversially. The Times of Eswatini even ran stories about Prodogy’s dubious appointment and this gave ammunition to the allies of Kunene (the purchasing Manager) who went as far as lobbying parliamentarians like Robert Magongo to speak on his behalf.

Patrick Mathunjwa, EEC Acting MD.

The argument was that tendering processes were not followed, to a point that even minutes of that tender committee sitting were leaked to the press. Interestingly, the Chairperson of the Tender Committee was Mathunjwa, a friend of Meshack Kunene. Of course parliamentarians joined the fray motivated by more than just EEC following fair procedural guidelines of disciplining their staff, some had a lot of tenders and business they were doing with EEC and needed to ensure their man was not shifted out of a crucial position like Purchasing Manager.

It also became known that Prodigy had opened office a few days before being awarded a multi million tender by EEC. However, this did little to save Kunene (the Purchasing Manager)’s skin. With Kunene (the Purchasing Manager) gone, questions began to be asked how Sibandze, his boss, had failed to pick his illicit activity especially as he was Kunene (the former Purchasing Manager)’s direct supervisor.

At first Kunene (the recently retired MD) tried to reshuffle Sibandze to the position of General Manager, Support Services, so that his long time buddy Mathunjwa could be the second in command at the organisation. Sibandze opposed this move citing several reasons. He contended that as the second highest official of the organisation, the MD did not have the power to reshuffle him. The argument went that Sibandze was employed by the Public Enterprise Unit (PEU) and not directly under the MD.

He also felt that he was being set up for failure as he did not understand the work at support services as a finance man. Lastly, he argued that the MD was trying to push Mathunjwa to the position of General Manager, Finance, via the backdoor especially after failing to win fair and square when he applied for the position. Sibandze’s refusal to accept the reshuffle incensed Kunene (the MD) who immediately suspended him for insubordination. At this point the paralysis within EEC had gotten completely off the rail.

It was while Sibandze was away that additional charges were added; some as a duplication of those faced by Kunene and others, purely meant to ensure he does not return to the organisation. The result was a carefully engineered dismissal and the subsequent appointment of Mathenjwa as EEC’s second in command.

Unlike Sibandze, who was a highly decorated Chartered Accountant already on the verge of leaving EEC, Mathunjwa was not a qualified accountant as per the demands of the post he now occupied. To Kunene, this didn't matter as long as his friend was now General Manager of Finance.

Having gotten rid of Mathunjwa’s possible competitors, the road was now tarred for him to become the acting MD as soon as Kunene retired on medical grounds.

But the reputation of Sibandze as a decorated accountant who had planned for years to go into private practice, was ruined. His contract was almost up, his auditing firm was at advanced operational stages and all he needed was to leave EEC with his reputation and credibility intact so to enhance the new business venture he was going into. It was painful, my brother. We watched him being frog-marched out of EEC like a petty criminal,” decried an Exco member who was friends with Sibandze.

Battle for the soul of EEC

As Kunene retires home after being away on sick leave for almost a year, he will surely look back at an organisation he served with diligence for over 36 years and realise he ruined his own reputation and that of many other decorated exco members.

EEC has been the biggest loser, and it does not help that even down at Ludzidzini it is the A institution whose control is key to the oiling of the royal family’s extravagant lifestyle. Even parliamentarians like Robert Magongo and Marwick Khumalo, among others, enter the EEC debacle with tainted hands as they have business interests at the institution.

Perhaps the sure winners are lawyer Musa Sibandze, who is sure to get a brief when the time to fire another senior manager or the many lawyers who shair the EEC’s disciplinary tribunals.

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