By Gcina Ntsaluba

Corruption Watch has found gross fraud and financial misconduct at a Soweto public school, Thubelihle Intermediate.

Read the press release here.

Following a tip-off from angry and exasperated teachers, Corruption Watch began a three-month investigation into allegations of financial misconduct levelled against the school principal and the former chair of the school governing body (SGB).

Read the coverage in The Sowetan here.

The teachers complained to Corruption Watch about poor infrastructure, a lack of learning material and appalling financial governance, which led them to question how the school’s budget was being spent. As the only two custodians of the school’s finances, and joint signatories of the school’s cheque account, the teachers’ attention turned to the principal Nonzwakazi Usiba, and the former SGB chair, Isaac Ngwenya.

Before seeking help from Corruption Watch, the teachers had tried unsuccessfully to address their concerns with the Department of Education. “Yearly we are told that the school has no funds. We always find this statement unacceptable as there is nothing to show for it,” one of the teachers told Corruption Watch.

The organisation began its investigation with the schools’ accounts books, which were voluntarily handed over to Corruption Watch by the principal. The organisation identified suspicious transactions in the form of school cheques made out to private individuals with no supporting documents and against fake invoices.

A private forensic firm was commissioned by Corruption Watch to dig deeper and conduct a forensic audit on the school’s accounts books. The audit covered three financial years – 2009, 2010 and 2011. It found that the school received just over R1.2-million from the Gauteng Department of Education and R367 000 from donors in Norway.

It also found that more than 90% of all payments made by the school were paid out in the form of cheques. Other findings included:

● 41 school cheques were made out and cashed by the principal, Nonzwakazi Usiba, amounting to R134 487.56. A few of the cheques made out to the principal were against cheque requisitions stating “feeding for learners”. There were no corresponding invoices.

● 10 school cheques were made out to former SGB chair Isaac Ngwenya totalling R41 059.30. No corresponding invoices were found by the forensics firm.

● A number of fake invoices were found, against which cheques were made out by the school to unknown individuals. For example, the forensic firm found that the school paid an amount of R48 064.74 to a certain individual against an invoice from Solly’s Packaging and Stationery Distributors, supposedly for calculators, pens, and other stationery. It is unclear whether the stationery detailed in the fake invoice was ever delivered to the school. Solly’s Packaging told the forensic firm that it did not issue the invoice to the school; it was not theirs.

● Against another fake invoice, purportedly from Heinemann Publishers, the school paid out an amount of R18 500.31. But that school cheque was made out to an individual, not to Heinemann Publishers, which in any event had no knowledge of the school or of an order for Zulu and Xhosa textbooks. The forensic report found that a Heinemann Publishers letterhead was scanned and manipulated to reflect a supposed invoice.

A number of other suspicious payments were made by the school that, according to Corruption Watch’s commissioned report, require further probing: two examples are the payment of R6 000 by the school to Star Grill and Buffet in Silverstar Casino in Krugersdorp, against a cheque requisition for “deposit for learner farewell”. And another payment of R28 000 was made to Harvey Travel against a cheque requisition for “Norway tickets”.

In response to the forensic audit report findings, Usiba admitted blindly to co-signing cheques on presentation without verifying the payee. Her attorney advised Corruption Watch that she “merely signs cheques that are due to service providers in accordance with invoices presumably at a less price”.

Usiba also claims to have no knowledge of one of the individual beneficiaries, who cashed a school cheque signed by her with a value of R18 500.00. She signed the cheque on presentation of a fraudulent invoice, purportedly from a reputable textbook publisher.

When asked about cheques made out to herself, the principal admitted cashing school cheques for money she claims she used to buy groceries for learners. No receipts were shown to Corruption Watch. According to Usiba’s attorney, different outlets were used to buy the groceries and she could “not write many cheques in a day’s spending”.

The principal claims that the former SGB chair continued to act as a signatory on the school’s account months after his term ended, “as the new SGB asked him to continue as things had to be paid and because there were so many in-fights within the new SGB”.

The money received by the school from Norwegian donors, Usiba said, came with certain conditions, among which were to pay for a music teacher and a helper in the kitchen.

Ngwenya said that he had been advised by his lawyer not to comment, after he had been given an opportunity to respond to the audit report findings.

The district office of the Gauteng Education Department has also weighed in, and contacted Corruption Watch offering to assist in normalising the school. The organisation felt duty-bound to hand a copy of the forensic report to the district office to take swift action.

“This is not an uncommon occurrence. We devoted significant resources to investigating these allegations,” said Corruption Watch’s executive director David Lewis.

“While we would not be able to repeat this in respect of all allegations of schools corruption made to us, what is clear is that vigilant teachers, learners and parents could themselves ensure that school resources are spent for advancing education rather than for the private gratification of a few people.”

For their part, the teachers were delighted at the findings of the forensic report, saying they were thrilled that Corruption Watch had managed to find concrete proof of financial misconduct at the school. They could no longer sit and watch as their school “was going down to the dogs”, they said.

“Our learners have suffered enough over the years because of this principal and it is high time we stand up as teachers and do something about it,” added one.

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Excerpt
Teachers at Thubelihle school in Soweto contacted Corruption Watch at the beginning of 2013 to report appalling financial governance at their school, resulting in crumbling infrastructure and dwindling supplies of learning material. What followed was a three-month probe into the allegations and some pretty damning findings against the principal and former governing body chair.
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