AGRICULTURE Department employees were locked out of their Sydenham offices in Port Elizabeth because the Roads and Public Works Department owes the landlord millions of rands in rent.
Officials close to the matter said Public Works had not been paying rent since the beginning of this year. This had prompted the landlord to lock the premises last week.
When employees arrived for duty on Thursday and Friday, they were confronted by locked gates.
Officials were seen milling around, not knowing what to do. Some left immediately.
Regional senior manager for rural development and agrarian reform in the Eastern Cape's western district Prof Danie Sandi was among several officials locked out on Friday.
"Public Protector Thuli Madonsela must probe whether this is not another Bheki Cele building lease scandal," Sandi said.
This is the second time in the space of a week that staff have been locked out.
The previous week, work was also disrupted for two days after the landlord locked the gates leading to the Agriculture Department's offices. Members of the public were turned away.
A security guard sitting on a nearby lawn said the owners had arrived on Wednesday night to lock the premises permanently.
The building, at 9 Somers Road, is owned by Gauteng's Arrowhead Properties and is managed by Broll Properties in Port Elizabeth. Neither was available to comment.
Public Works spokesman Sisanda George acknowledged that there had been a stand-off over a lease clause between his department and the landlord, dating back to February.
George said the landlord had submitted the paperwork to his department. However, it later transpired that tax clearance documents were still outstanding, which made payment difficult.
"There were dispute clauses in the offer made by the landlord which were inconsistent with our standard lease agreement. But we have concluded the agreement and payment is ready to be processed on the next payment run," George said.
Sandi said the department had been using the premises since 2000. He said the building's condition was questionable, as wiring was faulty.
"We have heard rumours that Public Works has not paid rent since the beginning of this year, an amount running into millions of rands," Sandi said.
He and his colleagues doubted whether normal work would resume this week as payment was only expected by Friday.