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Her red-soled Christian Louboutin shoes have walked Communications Minister Dina Pule into a storm of controversy. Who bought them, and with what money – but this is just the beginning of a deep well of claim and counter-claim.

Ask almost any woman, and she’ll tell you a drop-dead gorgeous pair of stilettoes is all you need to make you feel good. But for Communications Minister Dina Pule, her red-soled heels may be her undoing.

Pule is our new zero of the week for the persistent allegations dogging her of corruption, nepotism and using her position to give a hand up to her friends – as well as her steadfast refusal to come clean about her relationship with Phosane Mngqibisa. At the core of all this talk are claims of a romance Mngqibisa, the head of Khemano, and the alleged disappearance of sponsorship money intended for the ICT Indaba that took place in Cape Town in June.

Stories first started swirling about the involvement of Khemano in the indaba and the mismanagement – and disappearance – of sponsors’ funds in June. At the time, it was reported that millions of rands in sponsorship fees were drawn from the account of the event organiser, Carol Bouwer Productions, by Mngqibisa, after the minister lobbied telecommunications companies MTN, Vodacom and Telkom to sponsor the indaba.

Pule shot back, asking Auditor-General Terence Nombembe to look into how R10.5-million provided by her department for the event had been used. At the beginning of August, she said he had completed his investigation, that it would be made public very soon, and it would show that “all was good”. But the auditor-general’s office limited its probe to finding out whether the cash from Pule’s department was above board. What happened to the other funds is still unclear.

In the latest news, the joint committee on ethics and members’ interests, parliament’s watchdog over MPs’ conduct, met on Wednesday. Pule was asked by the committee last month to respond to reports about her relationship with Mngqibisa and to allegations that he had withdrawn the sponsorship money. Mngqibisa’s company was subcontracted by Bouwer’s group to help with the event – allegedly after Pule applied pressure on the latter. The ethics committee is not the only body interested in Pule’s response. Mariann Shinn, the DA’s communications spokeswoman, said on Sunday that she would ask the public protector to “urgently consider” investigating the apparent conflict of interest, Independent News reported this week.

Despite the minister’s denials of anything untoward, her Christian Louboutin shoes, which she wore to the opening of the ICT Indaba no less, are saying something else entirely. For the Sunday Times reported on 2 September that the designer shoes were believed to have been bought with some of the R25.7-million that sponsors pumped into the event.

The national weekly quoted Bouwer’s spokesman, Victor Dlamini, confirming that shoes, like the ones worn by Pule at the opening of the indaba, were bought in Barcelona by Mngqibisa. Bank statements confirmed that he took R100 000 from the bank account of Carol Bouwer Productions before flying to Spain to attend the GSMA Mobile World congress in February. He refused to clarify the nature of his relationship with Pule, denied he went to Spain with her, and denied buying her the shoes. But sources said he had given Bouwer several invoices, one of them showing that he bought Pule the shoes from a designer shop at Placa de Catalunya in the Barcelona city centre.

It seems clear enough, buying your lady friend a gift on an overseas trip. But Mngqibisa’s actions are somewhat murky: after the Sunday Times report, Carol Bouwer Productions came out to bat, denying it said sponsorship money for the ICT Indaba was used to buy shoes for Pule. Dlamini told ITWeb the very next day that “they just made it up”. “I said I don’t know if shoes were bought. I don’t think this guy is broke. He could have bought the shoes with his own money if he did buy them.”

MTN, Vodacom and Telkom were lobbied by Pule to pay the R25.7-million towards the indaba, funds that were withdrawn by Mngqibisa. The sponsors are now demanding to know how their money was used, and MTN has hired the Werksmans legal firm to probe whether the R15-million it paid was looted.

The Sunday Times established that Bouwer was strong-armed by Pule’s department into hiring Khemano, and into giving its head access to her bank account, where Telkom and Vodacom’s sponsorship money was deposited. Mngqibisa withdrew the cash in days, apparently to pay suppliers. MTN’s R15-million was mysteriously transferred to the account of a company called ABR Consulting, rather than that of Bouwer, after the telecommunications group was told that Bouwer’s account was not tax-compliant.

But these are not the only stories sticking to Pule’s well-shod feet. In early August, the Mail and Guardian reported it had a dossier of allegations against her. The picture it painted was of a minister mad with power, using her position to manipulate the South African Post Office and the SABC. Mngqibisa again pops up in these allegations of nepotism and the promotion of close colleagues.

In response, Pule claimed there was a “vendetta” and a “witch-hunt” being instituted against her. That may be her tale, but her shoes seem to be telling a very different story. Meanwhile, it seems Mngqibisa has gone to ground, leaving his lady friend to fight the battle alone – the media repeatedly report that attempts to contact him are unsuccessful.

Her red-soled Christian Louboutin shoes have walked Communications Minister Dina Pule into a storm of controversy. Who bought them, and with what money – but this is just the beginning of a deep well of claim and counter-claim.
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