An Mpumalanga primary school teacher has robbed South African taxpayers of thousands of rands in salary cheques she collected while she was nowhere near the classroom, but rather was nurturing her estate agent career, with the blessing of the school principal.
Kobus du Plessis, the head of HM Swart Laerskool in Bethal, knowingly allowed the remuneration of a ghost teacher, Verona Drinkwater, for over two years. He covered for the educator, who supposedly taught Grade 7, by faking class attendance registers and claiming she was sick. Du Plessis also claimed Drinkwater was still working for the school but as a marketer rather than as a teacher.
When asked about allegations spanning the period from 28 August 2010 to 28 April 2012, Drinkwater disputed the claim that she was a ghost teacher for close to three years before she retired. “I was a full-time teacher at the school from January 1995 until April this year. I only sold houses part time. No, there’s no such a thing of me not teaching, even my husband can vouch for me,” she said.
But the principal sang a different tune.
In a letter to Corruption Watch, which was accompanied by copies of class attendance registers from 2010 to 2012, Du Plessis wrote that he pulled Drinkwater out of class because she developed hearing difficulties in 2009. These presented problems with learners, and complaints from parents increased in 2010.
“I placed Mevrou Drinkwater in marketing. She performed a good job in fundraising for the school,” Du Plessis wrote.
But the registers he submitted were riddled with inconsistencies.
Corruption Watch can also confirm that Drinkwater’s alleged hearing trouble did not pose a challenge when the organisation’s journalist spoke to her on the phone on 2 October 2012, while she was at her Seeff Properties’ offices in Secunda. In addition, she made no mention of holding a marketing post or fundraising for the school.
After speaking to Drinkwater, Corruption Watch tracked down her LinkedIn page, on which she boasted about having won National Agent of the Year (units) for 2010 and 2011 with Seeff Properties. On her LinkedIn profile, Drinkwater also declared her love for property sales, “that is a job and a hobby all in one. I live for my job.”
The ghost teacher saga in the sleepy Mpumalanga town of Bethal began when a member of the public contacted Corruption Watch, claiming that Drinkwater worked for Seeff Properties in Secunda on a full-time basis but received a salary from the government with the full knowledge of the school principal, Du Plessis. The anonymous reporter wrote that the principal kept Drinkwater in the post from 28 August 2010 until April 2012 by forging class attendance registers. The reporter also claimed that Drinkwater “padded” a portion of her salary back to Du Plessis while keeping all her benefits, such as pension.
The principal speaks
Given the contradictions arising from Drinkwater’s interview, her LinkedIn page and the principal’s letter and copies of class registers, Corruption Watch decided to contact Du Plessis for clarity. He maintained that Drinkwater undertook marketing for the school, which had benefited from her fundraising work.
Drinkwater, when interviewed had mentioned nothing about being employed as a marketer by the school. She consistently maintained that she was a teacher up until April 2012.
The core of the matter was the discrepancies in the registers, such as:
• Different types of ink used to add Drinkwater’s name at the bottom;
• Her name sometimes written at the bottom of the page and other times reflected alphabetically like other teachers’ names;
• Marking her as present from 7am until 1pm daily from 2010 to 2012 after he admitted to Corruption Watch that there were days Drinkwater did not report for duty at the school but went straight to “mines” to fundraise; and,
• Adding that Drinkwater lived far from school in the nearest town of Trichardt.
When confronted with these inconsistencies, Du Plessis dropped a bombshell: he asked the Corruption Watch journalist to destroy the documents if they were perceived to be incriminating, insisting that his reputation was at stake.
He dismissed the allegation that he shared a portion of Drinkwater’s salary, but reiterated his claim that Drinkwater was too sick to teach. He said he had broken the law for the good of the school. Regarding his failure to inform the provincial department of education about Drinkwater’s perceived sickness, he said: “It takes very long, seven years at least, for the teacher to be boarded by the state.”
The government speaks
According to the Employment of Educator’s Act 76 of 1998 as amended, there are specific guidelines to be followed in cases where the educator is incapacitated either temporarily or permanently. In Schedule 1, the Educator’s Act deals with the Incapacity Code and Procedures in respect of ill health.
Asked for comment, the provincial education department’s spokesperson, Jasper Zwane, said his department had initiated an investigation into the Drinkwater issue. “We anticipate answers into this matter by no later than end of November. At the moment, we would not like to comment,” he added.
Drinkwater is one ghost teacher who was reported by a member of the public to Corruption Watch, but she is not the only one employed by the government.
If Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has his way, ghost workers in the public service will be a thing of the past. He believes weeding them out will cut the R345-billion public sector wage bill he says is unaffordable and has to be contained. Gordhan included measures to deal with fake workers last month in parliament when he tabled his medium-term budget policy statement.
Corruption Watch acts
Corruption Watch is a non-profit civil society organisation that receives reports of corruption from the South African public, investigates certain reports of corruption as well as mobilises civil society to take a stand against corruption and the abuse of public funds.
Of the 945 corruption reports received by the organisation, 104 (11 percent) concern schools and other systems in the education sector. Cases in the education sector include theft of money intended for feeding schemes or teaching material, theft of groceries, inflation of pupil and teacher numbers by principals so that they can claim higher subsidies, and falsification of annual financial statements.
David Lewis, Corruption Watch executive director, commented: “This case is important for two reasons: firstly, it is about a practice, namely the paying of ghost workers, that is extremely widespread and that collectively costs millions. Secondly, it is about corruption in schools. We have received many reports of school-level corruption. While the sums of money involved may be relatively small, the impact is great. They make the difference between having an additional teacher or not, a library or not, an extra classroom or not. People who wilfully deprive our learners of opportunities for a better education should not be allowed to get away with it.”
In its capacity as a society watchdog, Corruption Watch will continue with the investigation into the Bethal ghost teacher issue until the whole truth comes out.
The finance minister is on a mission to round up ghost workers in the public sector. And Corruption Watch is already on the case in Bethal.