Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula says the ghost workers scandal at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) will be referred for criminal investigations.
Mbalula provided an update on Project Ziveze, which is an employee verification process, on Monday.
The project was launched last year after irregularities were uncovered within Prasa’s information and communications technology (ICT), human resource and payroll systems.
Prasa earlier this year identified 3,000 employees who could not be verified.
This was due to the workers being without valid ID documents and the necessary work permits as required by law.
Addressing the media on Monday, Mbalula said Prasa employees were initially asked to come forward on a voluntary basis in order to be verified during phase one of Project Ziveze.
Only 14 268 of the 17 268 recorded employees on the state-owned entity’s payroll system, however, presented themselves for verification, according to the minister.
“During the same period, 1 159 employees resigned,” he said.
This led to a preliminary investigation being launched where 2 143 employees were flagged and later grouped into the following categories:
- Possible ghost workers
- Employees masquerading as someone else (identity theft)
- Employees who submitted fraudulent qualifications
- Employees facing serious criminally charges
Mbalula said the early investigation concluded that approximately 1 480 employees could not be physically verified and their documentation was non-existent as well.
“The investigation also revealed a number of instances where ID photos do not match the face of employees. This triggered further investigations,” he continued.
The root cause of these findings, the minister explained, was due to incorrect data capturing of employee information, resulting in a corrupted employee database among other things.
Mbalula further confirmed that there will be a forensic investigation, which will conduct a deep dive on critical issues raised in the preliminary investigation.
Other measures that will be taken to address the challenges include the cleaning up of the employee database and digitisation of files and supporting documents.
“A digital fingerprint and photo ID verification process, with the assistance of the Department of Home Affairs, is currently underway. The completion of this exercise will enable Prasa to freeze the salaries of those flagged.”
The minister revealed that Prasa employees who submitted fraudulent qualifications will be served with letters on Monday, to explain themselves.
He said these employees have been given two days to do so otherwise stricter action will be taken, adding that criminal charges will be laid against those who have committed fraud.
Taking questions from the media later in the briefing, the minister said he was of the view that the ghost workers saga was the work of “a syndicate” and “corrupt system” within Prasa.
“Obviously something like this cannot be done by one person. It’s a collusion… it’s a scam,” the minister said.
“Those officials who aide these deeds of corruption will face the full might of the law. This form of corruption cannot be characterised as anything other than stealing from the taxpayer.
“This is conduct we must all frown upon and encourage law enforcement agencies to act with the necessary speed to unleash the full might of the law on those hell-bent on public funds.”
According to Mbalula, Project Ziveze has saved Prasa R200 million since it was launched in November 2021.
“We saved R200 million because when we launched some of [the employees] ran away. They resigned from the system as we discovered them because there were conditionalities to freeze the salaries and they did not come back to report to work. The collusion within [Prasa] meant that some of them were eliminated,” the minister said.
“The day I announced the operation [more than] 1 000 disappeared from the system. Just that day they were gone.”
Prasa CEO, Hishaam Emeran said: “While Project Ziveze has saved us R200 million in the wage bill, the cost of this fraud and ghost employees far exceeds R200 million, and only a forensics investigation can give us the true cost of this fraud”.
Meanwhile, Mbalula also confirmed that Special Investigating Unit (SIU) was involved in the investigations.
“We are on top of our game working with law enforcement so some of the matters will be referred for criminal investigations and then they will be dealt with. At some point we will make announcements about people’s arrests,” he said.