Commissioner of Mines in hot soup over diamonds

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Moorosi Tsiane

THE Acting Commissioner of Mines, Pheello Tjatja, faces disciplinary action for allegedly tarnishing the image of the Ministry of Mining through his “negligent handling” of the country’s diamonds that were in his care.

Mr Tjatja was recently served with a letter by the ministry’s principal secretary, Ntahli Matete, requesting him to “show cause why disciplinary measures cannot be taken against you over the failure to account for diamonds in your possession”.

The negligence allegations have also raised fears that the diamonds that were allegedly smuggled out of the country by the Minister of Mining Keketso Sello’s personal secretary, Refiloe Mokone, could have been taken from the safe that was in Mr Tjatja’s care.

Mr Matete said Mr Tjatja was negligent in that he did not bother to physically check and verify that the safe containing the diamonds had not been broken into. Mr Tjatja did not even open the safe to physically count the diamonds after the Mokone incident. He merely looked at the safe and “satisfied himself that it had not been tampered with”.

Mr Matete said that members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) paid a surprise visit to Mr Tjatja’s office on 14 January 2019 and found that the number of diamonds that were actually in the safe did not tally with the figures that Mr Tjatja had presented to the parliamentary body when he appeared before it. Mr Matete said such discrepancies tarnished the image of the Ministry of Mining and “brought the entire ministry into disrepute”.

“You will recall that following the proceedings of the PAC at the parliament building on 14 January 2019, you reported to the honourable members of the PAC that there were diamonds that were in your possession as the Acting Commissioner of Mines which had been confiscated by the police and brought to you for safekeeping,” Mr Matete wrote to Mr Tjatja in the letter dated 15 January 2019.

“Furthermore, you confirmed that you maintained a proper record of such diamonds. You also indicated that following an incident in which one of the staff members of the Ministry of Mining was apprehended in Ladybrand, South Africa for the possession of some smuggled diamonds in December 2018, you satisfied yourself that there were no missing diamonds in your safe by merely looking at the diamonds that you kept without counting them, and that you were also satisfied that the safe had not been tampered with.”

Mr Matete said the PAC however, discovered that there were actually 114 diamonds in Mr Tjatja’s care as opposed to the 74 diamonds in his records submitted to the PAC.

“This was against your earlier statement that you reconciled your diamonds with your paperwork immediately after the Ladybrand incident. This discrepancy has, indeed, tarnished the name and the integrity of the Ministry of Mining, and brought the entire Ministry into disrepute.

“Through that incident you have seriously compromised the principles of integrity, honesty, trust and transparency as a custodian of the nation’s precious resource that is not only important to the Ministry of Mining, but also to the government and the entire Basotho Nation.

“It is in this regard, therefore, that you are requested to show cause why disciplinary measures cannot be taken against you. Your response is expected within seven working days of receipt of this letter,” Mr Matete concluded.

The understating of the diamonds in Mr Tjatja’s custody has raised suspicions that these diamonds were being systematically pilfered for private gain.

Yesterday, Mr Matete said that he was unable to comment on the matter because he was locked in meetings throughout the day.

Mr Tjatja, whose seven days to respond to Mr Matete’s letter lapsed yesterday, told this publication that he had “responded and submitted all my supporting documents”.

He insisted that he had not done anything wrong, adding that Mr Matete and the PAC had erred by failing to give him the opportunity to present his side of the story.

“The thing is that after getting a report from the PAC, the principal secretary (Mr Matete) just decided to write a ‘show cause’ letter without bothering to verify the (PAC) report. But I had all the records of every diamond in my possession.

“The PAC did not afford me a conducive environment to explain myself and they based their report on my summary which was meant for the Kimberly Process Certificate Scheme. But I have given the principal secretary all the records which proves that I am in the clear and I am waiting to hear from him,” Mr Tjatja said.

Mr Tjatja was slapped with the show cause letter a day after the PAC toured his office to ascertain if the diamonds that he was entrusted with could be accounted for. They wanted to be sure that the diamonds were not among those that Minister Sello’s personal secretary, Refiloe Mokone, had been caught with in South Africa.

Ms Mokone is facing charges of smuggling diamonds into South Africa after she was arrested last month by the South African Police Service’s elite crime fighting unit, the Hawks, who had found her in possession of diamonds.

Ms Mokone, who was traveling in the minister’s official vehicle, was arrested along with three men who are not public servants and the quartet has since appeared in the Ladybrand Magistrates’ Court.

Mr Tjatja stuck by his story that the diamonds in his care were still intact and had not been tampered with.

“We reconciled the stock list of the diamonds in our care immediately after the (Ms Mokone smuggling) incident to see if any of the diamonds were stolen and found them intact. We also contacted all the diamond mines in the country and they told us that no diamonds had been stolen from them,” Mr Tjatja said.

He however, admitted that he did not open the safe to check the diamonds in his care as he was convinced that they were not stolen because he “did not notice any signs of forced entry into the office where the diamonds were kept”.

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