Over the past few days the public reputation of (now ex) African National Congress national spokesperson, Carl Niehaus, has unravelled in the most spectacular way. Niehaus was appointed by the ANC on November 11 2008. He was obliged to devote much of his time over the following few months to making the case that Jacob Zuma was fit for office despite the serious corruption charges the ANC president was facing.
On Friday the ANC's spin doctor himself became the centre of a news cycle that went into overdrive following revelations by the Mail & Guardian of the chaotic state of his financial affairs. Niehaus, it seems, had lived way beyond his means for many years despite being able to trade on his ANC connections to secure highly lucrative positions in the state and private sector. In order to cover his debts he begged loans from a number of ANC luminaries, and also received money from Brett Kebble. The Mail & Guardian noted that "over the past decade he has resigned from most jobs under pressure or earlier than his contract stipulated because of debt or mismanagement of his financial affairs." His former employers included Deloitte and Touche, the Presidency, the Rhema Church, and the Gauteng Economic Development Agency (GEDA).
The apparent nadir was reached in 2005 when as head of GEDA he forged the signatures of a number of Gauteng government officials in an effort to secure a personal loan from a property development company. He desperately needed the money, he told the newspaper, in order to settle a debt of R700,000 owed to his previous employers at the Rhema Church.
The following day the Saturday Star claimed that in 2004 Niehaus lied to the law firm where he was employed as an empowerment and transformation consultant (at R100,000 a month) to get it to pay for a return business class ticket to London for himself and his then wife Linda Thango. Niehaus was involved in organising an ANC concert in London, but he told the firm, AL Mostert & Co, that his sister had died and he had to attend the funeral.
The untruth was exposed when Thango, whom Niehaus had insisted be employed as his personal assistant, let slip on their return that they had seen his sister the day before. The article quoted Tony Mostert as saying he had been "dreadfully disappointed in the man's total lack of ethics."
Niehaus seemed to confess to all after the Mail & Guardian confronted him with evidence of the chaotic mismanagement of his financial affairs. When asked about the fraudulent letter he told the newspaper: "I was desperate but what I did was terrible. After I wrote the letter and handed it over I immediately knew that I had done the worst thing in my life. I went to see [then Gauteng MEC for finance Paul] Mashatile. I confessed that I'm deeply compromised and he was deeply disappointed. I resigned immediately."
In an interview on Talk Radio 702 on Friday Niehaus also claimed that he had had a serious problem "and I can admit to you that for a period of my life I have lived above my means." However, he no longer lived an extravagant life, he said. The Saturday Star meanwhile quoted him as saying that his financial problems had happened prior to 2005, and he had declared all to the ANC before joining it as a spokesperson. "I had to declare everything to the ANC when I joined the party again last year. It was never a secret. I couldn't exactly call a press conference and confess this but I was surprised at how it eventually came out."
However, even the truthfulness of Niehaus's recent confessions has now been called into question. The Gauteng government released a statement disputing Niehaus's account of his departure. It claimed that GEDA had detected the fraudulent letter itself and "the then chairperson of the board, Mr Keith Khoza, investigated and confronted Mr Niehaus about the allegations, Mr Niehaus resigned from GEDA as soon as the allegations surfaced." ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, meanwhile denied that Niehaus had made full disclosure before becoming a spokesperson for the party. "Any disclosure was a matter of us beginning to ask questions on issues that came our way", Mantashe said. "We confirm we have raised questions with him on a number of those issues but not before he was employed."
The Sunday papers also revealed that Niehaus's predilection for high living and his inability to settle his debts expeditiously had continued up until the present. The Sunday World reported that Niehaus had spent a night in police cells at Sun City last year after being unable to pay a R70,000 bill. He had spent four days at the Lost City hotel with Thango and her mother but did not have enough money on his credit cards to settle the account. He offered Thango's Porsche as surety but this was turned down as it was not in his name. Niehaus told the newspaper: "Yes, I was arrested and it is true that I spent a night at the police cells and I was released the following day on bail. But I managed to settle my bill and the case was closed."
The Sunday Times meanwhile reported that in July last year Niehaus had rented out a R5m Tuscan style villa in Midrand at R45,000 a month. He had put up a deposit of R50,000 and paid the first month's rent, but had begun defaulting just two months later. Niehaus had proceeded to fob off his landlord, Eric Corbishley, by claiming that a transfer of the funds from the ANC was imminent. In an SMS to Corbishley on November 26 2008 Niehaus claimed that he had an "ABSOLUTE COMMITMENT" from the ANC treasury that the R200,000 he owed would be transferred that day.
The money did not come through and four weeks and many promises and excuses later Niehaus confessed to Corbishley on that "I have been lying to you about the transfer... I'm really on my knees pleading, and also asking you to forgive me for all the lies" (December 24).
When contacted by the Sunday Times Niehaus blamed the ANC for failing to pay his salary for three months. "They were messing me around" he said, "There was a delay in payment and the finalisation of my contract." Corbishley meanwhile told the newspaper that he failed to understand how the ANC could employ such a "con artist": "I can't believe that such a senior person, especially of the ANC, can lie like this."
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