‘I have no particular liking for anything but the truth.’ ~ Socrates to Euthyphro
Following my decision to resign from New Era Publication Corporation last month I pledged to my readers and supporters that I would make a full public disclosure into the reasons for my leaving, for they are not personal but deeply political, and constitute a matter of public interest.
I was employed at New Era Publications Corporation (NEPC) as a subeditor since July 2015. In the course of time I became aware of strange developments that should raise eyebrows, but despite being elected by the workers as a shop-steward I found no ways within the organisation to raise our concerns without being victimised or forced out.
In July 2016, I had my first glimpse into the financial state of NEPC when details of the Auditor General’s report on NEPC were published. In fact, New Era published an article on 19 July 2016, entitled ‘Fraud’ not ruled out at NEPC, which sparked alarm among workers, who were not aware of what is happening.
‘The parliamentary committee [on public standing accounts] requested answers and documentary evidence on differences amounting to N$4.8 million in NEPC’s payroll system compared to the general ledger payroll accounts… the audit of bank transactions revealed that bank reconciliations are not performed nor reviewed. “A difference amounting to N$1,142,176 was noted for the Bank Windhoek current account and no bank reconciliation was provided for audit purposes…” Additional questions by the committee included N$2 million for supplier statements, as well as supporting documents for property, plant and equipment additions amounting to N$3.3 million.’
Living large at taxpayers’ expense
What I found surprising was that to date no disciplinary steps were taken to hold the responsible officers to account for failing to comply with the legal reporting requirements of their highly paid jobs.
The CEO of NEPC, Dr Audrin Mathe, went before the parliamentary standing committee on public accounts (SCOPA) in July 2016 to say NEPC was underfunded and understaffed — yet around that same time NEPC bought a top of the line Range Rover for the CEO.
Staff reported that the vehicle cost around N$1.8 million. The CEO’s argument that the company was underfunded did not chime with the decision to buy a vehicle for the CEO at a cost of N$1.8 million.
That same month, after Mathe lost out in the race for the job of CEO at Nampa, he then launched a new Saturday newspaper at NEPC, without any additional staff, despite telling parliament NEPC was understaffed. How do you start a new publication if you are already understaffed?
When asked by Confidente whether he had been shortlisted for the Nampa job, Mathe said: “They haven’t called me yet and even if they did I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
NEPC managers then proceeded to force the workers to produce the new weekend paper at no extra pay, although production staff were required to work 48 hours a week, instead of the agreed and statutory limit of 40 hours — with no extra pay.
He would later claim when it became clear the paper would have to close, that he had carefully considered all the impact of the extra work on the workers and company — despite all indications to the contrary.
It became clear though that despite provisions of the law that protect the minimum conditions of workers in Namibia, NEPC’s bosses were prepared to implement an illegal policy of forced unpaid labour by compelling some staff to work an extra day a week for free; they were in fact committing wage theft.
It occurred to me that if someone can steal from poor workers that they personally know, it should not be too difficult for them to steal from complete strangers: the taxpayers.
Readers also complained: here is the only newspaper in the country that receives tens of millions in public funds every year, but is unable to conduct a profitable operation, and unwilling (or unable) to account for how it used those public funds.
New paper binned
Instead, after a few months of refusing to hear the mood music, the bosses had to admit their new weekend paper was an abortion, that they had done zero market research. Under pressure from the new board, they ‘shelved’ the Saturday paper without even an announcement to the workers.
Circulation figures of the main paper plummeted meanwhile and the print-run was also massively reduced by around two-thirds under the current management.
When I mentioned my concern to the staff, one of the exco members let slip that the management did not have the required number of signatures from board members to approve the purchase of that expensive vehicle, the Range Rover.
This I could not confirm for myself, as I do not have access to those confidential records, but the fact is that New Era — a national paper — does not even have one vehicle for use by journalists.
Therefore the decision to buy a very expensive luxury car just for the CEO and launch a new paper without additional staff was frowned upon by many, as it smacks of skewed priorities at a time when the CEO was telling parliament the company was struggling financially.
Ironically, in August 2013, six months after his appointment to the post of CEO, Mathe told the public that ‘NEPC could be a model that would end the government dependency syndrome of state owned enterprises as the company will not need government subsidies by 2017.’
Clearly, by his own testimony under oath and the AG’s report in 2015 and 2016 and 2017, NEPC had not met its key financial or statutory reporting targets and was in fact pleading for more subsidies — contrary to what he had promised.
Tragedy and cover-up
In April 2017 it was briefly reported after the Easter weekend that a young woman had been killed by a driver in a Range Rover on the road between Rundu and Katima Mulilo.
Nampa reported that ‘Mpasi Monica Musova, 21, died instantly after she was hit by a Range Rover on the Rundu main road, some 70km east of Mururani at the Makena village on Monday at about 10h44.’
New Era did not report the name of the victim or the details of the incident, despite the fact that two reporters confirmed to me personally that they had been contacted by the police that Monday to inform them that the CEO of NEPC had been involved in an incident, in which a 21-year-old woman was killed — and that a homicide investigation would follow.
On Monday 18 April 2017, New Era published only one line about the death of Musova, whom the newspaper declined to name. It noted in passing only that ‘[police spokesperson] Shikwambi explained that other deaths occurred in Walvis Bay, Henties Bay, Rehoboth and Rundu.’
This gave new meaning to the term ‘to cover a story’.
It bothered me endlessly that the paper failed and/or refused to publish the details of the fatal crash or the name of the young victim, or that it reportedly involved one of the NEPC principals and a very expensive company car. I considered it a betrayal of the public trust invested in journalists to tell the truth as best we can.
Surely it is a matter of pertinent public interest — specifically for the relatives of the young victim Musova — for reporters and law enforcement to confirm the circumstance of her death and that due process was followed in the investigation at the scene where she was killed, and afterwards.
Executive bonuses not disclosed
Of major concern to NEPC workers and the taxpaying public is the question of how much the CEO and management cadre agreed to pay themselves in bonuses and salary increases over the past two years, specifically subsequent to parliament’s decision in 2015 to raise the subsidy to NEPC.
The unresolved 2017 wage dispute between the company and union stalled on this point: that the bosses refuse to disclose how much they paid themselves in perks, bonuses and increases over the past two years.
Staff members with insight into the books say that subsequent to the CEO’s statement before parliament that the firm was heavily underfunded, NEPC executives gave themselves huge bonuses that were completely out of sync with their performance and in fact jeopardised the cash-flow position of the firm.
The truth of the matter though can only be borne out by investigation.
In my understanding, bonuses and wage increases are generally linked to performance, but if the executives had not managed for several years in a row to account for, or even keep a proper record of how they spent public funds, never mind generating a profit, what were they rewarding themselves for?
Working hours and ethics
At the most recent hearing of SCOPA in November 2017, it emerged that the AG could not give an informed opinion on the financial records of NEPC, because the records had not been made available to him in time, and those he was able to obtain were in disarray.
This, despite repeated pledges by NEPC management in previous hearings to tighten up financial accounting and to implement the AG’s repeated recommendations.
Mathe was asked last month by Hon Mike Kavekotora MP, the chairman of SCOPA, if he would have gone about things the way he has if it were his own company. Mathe’s response, according to the Namibian Sun on 20 November 2017, in an article entitled ‘New Era books in Shambles’, was to say: “No. If it were my own institution I would not have let it slump to where it has.”
This was an astounding admission. Which brings me to my point, that in the two and a half years that I worked there, I did not see the CEO spend one full working day at the office. We saw him at office no more than once a month or perhaps once every few months, but then only for an hour or so, or to attend a meeting.
I was perplexed by this, because I don’t know how one can run a struggling public company without ever spending a full day at the office. As far as I could see there was no real organisational leadership. Other managers spent most of their days either traveling or behind closed doors at the office doing their studies and academic assignments.
Despite being “underfunded”, the company had money enough to hire a personal assistant and a personal driver for the CEO, who as I said, was very rarely seen at the office, although nobody could say where he was or what he was doing. The driver Mr Bryan Tjombonde tragically died on the road on the way home late one night in November last year.
Workers like Tjombonde gave their lives to be at work. Surely logic and basic work ethics dictate that a chief executive who is leading a struggling publicly funded company and who is paid the same or even more than the president of the country should be at office for more than 12 hours a year!
But it seems that in this country, running a public company into the ground carries no consequences, only rewards, benefits and accolades. While for the children of the workers, there are only tears and hunger.
The moral problem is that executives are taking massive salaries and benefits from struggling public institutions that are not commensurate to their contribution to those companies.
As we know, some SOE bosses earn more than the President of the Republic, yet fail to deliver on the most basic fiduciary and professional responsibilities and lawful requirements, thus putting immense strain on the viability of these institutions and on public resources that could be put to better use elsewhere.
The Namibian reported in March 2016 that, ‘according to a statement released by the Presidency “loss-making New Era Publications’ CEO earns as much as [President Hage] Geingob does, N$1.7 million” per year. They didn’t mention entertainment and travel allowances, etc.
It said only that:
New Era Publications was again recently in the news over the non-payment of taxes, amounting to tens of millions of dollars, to the Receiver of Revenue. However, in the wake of the salary revelations, New Era Publications’ CEO Audrin Mathe also stated on Facebook yesterday: “LOL. I wish that was true in my case. I would love that much.” Sources indicated that Mathe’s salary is actually N$1,1 million.
Questions that need answers
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, they say, and it is the job of journalists to shine a light on the hidden aspects and the dark areas of public life.
So, I’m writing not with any personal vendetta, but out of respect for the loved ones of Ms Mpasi Monica Musova, with a thought for the children of Mr Bryan Tjombonde, I am writing with one eye on the general state of the populace struggling in the midst of a harsh recession. I am writing also to protect the public investment in our public institutions. It is our duty to ask the difficult questions that need answers:
1) Did the NEPC board approve the purchase of a luxury Range Rover at the cost of N$1.8 million for the CEO at a time they were telling parliament that NEPC is underfunded?
2) Did the company apply the lawful tender and advertising procedures for parastatals when purchasing the vehicle? If not, why not?
3) Is it true that the CEO generally spent less than 2 hours per month at the office? Does his contract exempt him from reporting for office duty?
4) Why did Mathe and Co implement a forced labour policy at NEPC after launching their new paper July 2016 when it is clearly against the law?
5) What level of bonuses and salary increases did NEPC executives afford themselves after telling parliament in July 2016 that they are running a loss-making operation?
6) What is the state of the homicide investigation into the death of Monica Mpasi Musova? Why did New Era refuse to publish her name and the details surrounding her death when they had been informed by the police?
7) Why is New Era refusing to publish the Auditor General’s recent report on its finances?
I tried to raise these questions in the workplace over the last few months, and particularly as the labour dispute intensified, but last Friday I received instead of an answer to my questions, a letter of immediate dismissal from Dr Mathe, for “abuse of information” and for criticising the editors on social media over their refusal the publish the AG’s report.
I view this as a downright assault on my free speech and personal autonomy; an attempt to silence me, to suppress my voice in the public debate. The AG’s report, which I publicly demand New Era should publish, cannot be considered ‘confidential information’ by any stretch of imagination, since it was tabled before parliament.
Refusing to publish the AG’s report into its use of public funds suggests NEPC’s management has in fact turned it back on the public interest and everything that public-interest journalism stands for.
Therefore, at a time when funds are scarce, the public is justified to demand that such funds be spent on urgent social programmes, such as schoolfeeding and primary health, rather than to benefit only a few top executives, who hold the public in contempt.
It is a total disgrace — not to mention illegal — not to account for public funds.
This attempt to subordinate the truth and the facts to whatever the bosses prefer the readers to believe is a form of downright abuse of our prized press freedom. Journalism is, above all, about seeking and telling the truth — no matter how difficult, to empower readers to make informed choices.
From my experience I can say that real writers actually love their readers and will go to great lengths to try to help their readers or to protect them from lies, because they know that as promised, the truth shall set us free. It is for this reason, above all, that I cannot work under the current leadership of NEPC.
In my view SOEs that cannot account for every cent they have been given by the new administration, should not be allocated any more public funds until they do. If they cannot account for every cent, the bosses should surely show a trace of dignity and resign. And where necessary, they should face the legal consequences.
Those of us who still value the truth more than our own wallets and who are prepared to stand up for the truth must also be prepared to accept the consequences, because they are not always easy. But one thing is clear: the time for wasting public funds is over.