July 04, 2020

Parliament suicide probe shows victim ‘was fighting a fight that was not heard’

The confidential, but comprehensive and unredacted Public Service Commission’s (PCS’s) report on the suicide of parliamentary manager Lennox Garane claims that parliament’s senior leadership showed a disregard that “borders on a lack of empathy and negligence”. It accuses Acting Secretary to Parliament, Ms Baby Tyawa, former Acting Deputy Secretary, Advocate Modibedi Phindela and Manager of International Relations, Dumisani Sithole of treating Garane’s suicide threats with “laxity” and says “they failed to at least personally reach out to Mr Garane and look for solutions to deal with his threats or to alert his family of his threats”.

It also claims that Tyawa and Phindela, then the two most senior parliamentary leaders, blamed the Garane family for the suicide, which the PCS described as “repulsive”. The report states: “The callous, arrogant and insensitive response to the PSC’s provisional report in respect of Mr Garane’s family’s apparent inaction is in poor taste and uncalled for.”

It is public knowledge that the PCS’s report questioned Tyawa, Phindela and Garane’s immediate supervisor Sithole’s “fitness and proficiency to hold leadership and management positions”. However the full report goes much further in questioning why an alternative existing “informal grievance process” was not invoked.

Asked to comment, parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said: “Unfortunately Parliament is at this stage unable to respond to an inquiry based on a purportedly leaked report, whose authenticity cannot be established.”

The PCS report criticises conditions in the International Relations and Protocol (IR&P) division in which Garane was employed. It describes a non-collegial department fraught with tension in part as the result of confusing job descriptions. It also describes its management as “weak”.

Among its recommendations is that a “special enquiry into the functioning and tensions in the IR&P Division should be conducted. The PSC understands that the tensions and toxic relationships in this Division even predates Mr Sithole’s appointment. Parliament should get a change management expert to look into all the matters relating to the Division and make appropriate recommendations for implementation,” the report states.

Spokesperson Mothapo said the PSC report has “undergone consultations with the family and processing within the internal structures of Parliament ‑ including at Parliament's oversight committee – and that parliament is currently in the process of implementing its recommendations”.

His response comes after an announcement was made at the oversight committee last month by parliament’s Executive Authority absolving Tyawa and Phindela of responsibility for the tragedy and rejecting some of the PSC’s recommendations, despite objections from opposition members of the committee.

The full report lists a number of PSC’s concerns and recommendations. Uppermost is the PSC’s concern about “the appropriateness of the appointment of all managers and designated professionals on fixed-term contracts”.

A submission made to the PSC investigation by a senior staff member notes, “a challenge experienced by the late Mr Garane was the institutional application of appointment by means of contract … The absence of applicable institutional regulations and/or policies to guide the contracting of employees and the associated practices, leads to inconsistent and discriminatory practices which more often than not results in the infringement of individual rights”.

'The consideration of appointments or contract renewals, or not, creates tremendous individual uncertainty within the institution'.

He went on to say that the “consideration of appointments or contract renewals, or not, creates tremendous individual uncertainty within the institution”.

Garane’s suicide was at first attributed to the email he received notifying him that his fixed-term five-year contract would end in a month. As it turned out, Garane’s difficulties were more complicated than that and the PSC report goes into great detail about the work-related problems he faced.

The PSC report was based on 16 affidavits and statements from parliamentary employees including Garane’s managers, other supporting documentation and interviews with members of his family. It reported that Garane spoke to his brother on the morning of his suicide, giving no indication of his intention. He told him only that “it was not the end of the Fixed-Term Contract that was the main cause of his dissatisfaction, but rather the institutional setup, the hostility in Parliament, the mismanagement of labour relations and human resources.”

Garane made his unhappiness with his work situation clear and public. He first lodged a complaint against Sithole who he said “removed me from my position, and placed me in a job that I had told Parliament I did not want to be considered for; thus altering my contract”. When that had no effect he laid a complaint against Sithole’s manager, Adv Phindela, who Garane said, “refused to process my grievance, saying parliament is a political environment; which I interpreted as meaning political appointees, like Sithole, were free to do as they wished with lives of those below them”; and finally “I submitted a complaint higher up; it took Penelope Tyawa (Parliament Accounting Officer) six months to respond, advising me to go outside if I was not satisfied with her response”.

This information came directly from Garane and is quoted in the PCS report from a handwritten note found after his suicide, under the heading “It’s a Protest Suicide”.

The PSC report urges parliament to put in place “appropriate Human Resource policies and procedures” to regulate when an employee (including a manager) may be transferred to another post. It emphasises the need to clearly establish what to do in the event that the employee clearly chooses to remain in the job for which they applied, and were accepted; under what terms a senior manager may overrule the employees’ choice; and what process of consultation must be followed in such a case.

The report goes on to state: “The requirement for consultation obliges the employer to do what is called good faith bargaining, which means that before an employer takes a decision or announces a decision which affect employees’ rights and positions, the employer must follow due process.”

The PSC concludes that it “still finds no evidence that Mr Sithole consulted with Mr Garane, prior to making the decision… Mr Sithole’s first engagement with management was on 18 January 2017 when he relayed his decision to them. Mr Garane was therefore not given an opportunity to have his say and to raise any concerns he may have had about Mr Sithole’s decision as announced on 18 January 2017”.

It comes to the conclusion that whatever process of consultation was followed, Sithole had announced in a meeting that he had reached a decision, “which indicated that his mind was closed and the decision was a done deal.

“PSC is now convinced that it is Ms Tyawa and the Parliamentary administration’s view that merely informing employees of a decision constitutes sufficient consultation. They therefore reject the standard test of consultation and the PSC disagrees with them.”

The PCS report poses this problem: what can an employee do with a grievance that has been escalated up the managerial hierarchy until it encounters a dead end? It finds that there is no provision for a grievance procedure for a manager at Garane’s level who lays a complaint about his manager.

 The PCS described how Garane’s grievances were escalated upwards through the parliamentary appeals process until it reached the uppermost level, which would be Tyawa who was the Acting Secretary to Parliament, and there he was told that he had exhausted all internal avenues of redress, and he must take his case to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

 Garane apparently appealed to the Executive Authority, but this structure is not expected to deal with parliamentary administrative matters. Approximately a month after the suicide had taken place, the Executive Authority, the comprising Secretary to the National Assembly Baleke Mbete and Chairperson of the NCOP Thandi Modise, took up the matter and wrote to the PCS requesting an independent investigation.

The report goes on to mention that an “informal grievance process” exists, which was known to Garane, but that this alternative avenue of resolving his grievance was not used by Tyawa and Phindela. “The PSC has not been provided with reasons why the practice to consider appointing an internal or external resource to investigate a matter was not followed, notwithstanding … Mr Garane’s appeals to this effect.”  

The report declares: “Since the PSC now notes that the route of appointing an internal or external resource to investigate a matter was available, it is the view that it would have been an appropriate route to follow considering that Mr Garane had basically complained against everyone. The PSC does accept the fact that Mr Garane appeared as a serial complainant and this might have prejudiced him.”  

It is worth quoting the PCS’s findings in full: “The Section Manager: Organizational Wellness in Parliament, Mr Bashe, was alerted to Mr Garane’s statements that he intended to commit suicide. He in turn assigned Mr Sambona Zisile, the Employee Wellness Practitioner, to assist Mr Garane. When the latter could not get hold of Mr Garane via his cell phone or via e-mail, no further attempts were made to assist Mr Garane.” Zisile admitted to the PSC investigators that he felt inequipped to deal with an incident of this nature.

“From 11 September 2018, when Mr Garane first made threats of suicide to 14 September 2018, the day of his suicide, no personal assistance was provided to Mr Garane by his supervisor, Mr Sithole, or Adv Phindela … these officials heard about Mr Garane’s threats to commit suicide three days before the event and they could not even call the SAPS, check with his family or get security to guard him. The supervisors who knew and delegated the matter to their juniors should have asked continuously from the juniors what they had done to assist Mr Garane.”

The report concludes: “Mr Garane saw it as a terrain of struggle, but realised he was fighting a fight that was not heard. Something drastic had to happen for them to hear.

By Moira Levy.

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  • Author: Moira Levy
Last modified on Thursday, 28 November 2019 13:28

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