Michael Kimberley and Kathryn Kimberley
THE mysterious man who has built an empire from his hugely popular community-based Public Servant News Network (PSNN) on Facebook has come under attack for failing to declare the "donations” his 200 000 loyal followers give him, as well as illegally posting advertising on his sites.
The Port Elizabeth PSNN has secured a massive 38 000 followers since it was set up in 2010, and there are 14 similar Facebook pages across the country.
PSNN is an online community forum that carries updates on local crime, lost animals and politics. Pages are regularly updated with banking details and calls to sponsor or donate cash to the administrator so he can "concentrate on building the PSNN to be the ultimate crime fighting weapon”.
However, questions have been raised as to how much money the network is making from these donations, and where it is going to.
National Social Development Department spokeswoman Lumka Oliphant said the PSNN was operating as an illegal non-profit organisation (NPO). "This is a problem across South Africa. People ask for donations but refuse to make their financial statements known. This group must provide evidence about all the money changing hands.”
She said the PSNN had no legal standing to ask for donations or carry out any kind of community service on such a mass scale. "He must go by the book. There are laws. He must register as an NPO,” she said.
Arnold Netshambidi, the administrator for the Southern African NGO Network project, a development information portal for NGOs in South Africa, said: "Anyone who receives money, regardless if it is donations or charities, must be formalised and registered.
"You can’t run something like that without being accountable. His financial books must be made public.”
The PSNN administrator, who calls himself Public Servant, admitted in a public post this week he was not registered as an NPO. The organisation also offers advertising deals on its Facebook page, with a company banner on PSNN’s page, plus six text posts, costing at least R1 500.
According to Facebook’s terms of service, a person is prohibited from selling on their pages.
Port Elizabeth Online Innovations owner Kevin Gray said Public Servant was grossly abusing Facebook’s policies. "If it is a regular violation, the page might be shut down by Facebook,” he said.
B&E conference and business centre manager Melissa Paul confirmed this company advertised on the site. "It seemed to give us exposure but if it is illegal we will stop. We were unaware Facebook prohibited advertising,” she said, adding they had paid PSNN R2 300 for two months.
Despite numerous requests by the public and media to reveal his identity, Public Servant has refused to do so, citing a fear for his life because his pages are used to oust criminals.
However, Weekend Post established the First National Bank account that is displayed on the PSNN page when asking for donations is held by Prajay Ramjee, 32, a mechanical engineer from Pretoria.
The bank account was opened under the business name Public Servant 247.
When contacted this week, Ramjee denied he was the founder of PSNN, despite his name being listed as the sole proprietor of Public Servant 247. However he did admit to designing the PSNN website and Facebook pages.
Ramjee said he set up the FNB account on behalf of Public Servant in order to avoid possible corruption. He said when any money came into the account, he transferred it into Public Servant’s personal bank account.
However, Ramjee then claimed he had stopped working for PSNN after a rock was thrown through a window at his Pretoria home earlier this year. "It is quite dangerous. People have been put behind bars and would like to know who the owner is,” he said.
Shortly after the conversation with Ramjee, Public Servant sent messages to some of the PSNN members asking them not to talk to the media.
On Thursday, Public Servant posted the following: "I must apologise in advance for this post but it needs to be done. I started PSNN a few years back ... and tried really hard to deliver a faultless service. Over the last three years numerous people have said and done things which made me want to stop this dead in its tracks. People who I trusted and helped without expecting anything in return have turned on me.
"The past two weeks have been horrible with hectic accusations. Someone accused me of stealing their photos ... and then people continuously harassing me and anyone associated with PSNN about who created this page and where the money given to the page goes to.”
He said he tried to run PSNN as a full-time business and that through sponsorships and donations he only made about R3 000 a month.
"Then there’s the question of my identity. I am a private person who does not seek any glory in what I do. It’s not much that I do anyway except copy and paste. Most of all I am worried for my safety and that of my family. So who would want to expose me? Someone who offers a similar service ... maybe a newspaper whose sales have dropped since PSNN got popular, or someone who is jealous?”
He said as PSNN grew, he would target bigger criminals and that he could only do so if he remained anonymous.
Mike Porter, head of breakaway rival group the Port Elizabeth Appreciation Squad, said he was banned from PSNN after asking questions about money raised.
Porter said he had been an active member of the site for two years and that it "hurt” when he was blocked. He claims he received death threats when things soured between himself and Public Servant.
Hubert-Willem de Rouw said he also experienced Public Servant’s bad side. De Rouw lives in Cape Town and was a member of the Western Cape Facebook page Traffic Fines, Cameras & Updates. He said the relationship soured over a sticker deal in September last year. "I did all the hard work and he just sat in front of a computer and made money.”
De Roux, who has been banned from all Public Servant pages, described Public Servant as a manipulator who used other people’s ideas for his own benefit.
Industrial psychologist and member of the DA’s Young Leader Programme, Renaldo Gouws, said he had numerous run-ins with Public Servant. "I am ashamed that a page would be used like this for personal gain and also to stroke egos.”
Gouws , who spoke to the newspaper in his personal capacity, said PSNN PE was a brilliant source of information and aided the community. "But it could be so much more under the correct leadership and with the egos placed aside.”
Gouws butted heads with the administrator over the DA’s "Save Our Metro Campaign” and when Public Servant publicly named him as the man behind the Whistleblowers PE Facebook page.
Gouws, who is not the Whistleblowers PE administrator, said when Public Servant publicly identified him as such to 38 000 supporters on the PSNN PE Page, it put a "massive target on my back”.
This article appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, September 14, 2013.