December 14, 2018

Garane suicide exposes human relations crisis in Parliament

I owe an apology to the family of Lennox Garane, the senior manager of one of Parliament’s international relations units who committed suicide in his office on 14 September.

I wrote an editorial piece soon after I learned of the tragedy based on the information I had at hand, which was that he had killed himself after learning that his contract would not be renewed. I was horrified, but not that surprised.

As a former parliamentary employee I have seen people almost broken by the inexplicable and apparently arbitrary non-renewal of their contracts, or the stress of waiting to learn if it would be extended or not.

But you have to credit Parliament. It has finessed the perfect management tool to ensure compliance. It might be cynical, even cruel, but it’s nothing if not effective.

Here’s how it works. All staff requests, complaints, grievances and issues must go through a steep hierarchal system. Only if your immediate superior cannot resolve your problem are you permitted to go over your manager’s head to the next level of authority – and you are required to notify your manager first or the next manager up won’t touch it.

Here’s the genius of this system: senior staff are employed on five-year contracts. Some may escalate your issues, but ultimately, no matter how long it takes, your grievance will eventually reach a cul de sac because Parliament’s top leadership is not accountable to anyone except party political bosses who often have some hand in their ongoing employment.

According to the accounts of his family members, Lennox Garene followed the rules to the last, and took the precaution of documenting every brush off, every request that received no reply, every appeal that was ignored and every act of bullying by his manager, who was a former MP who was headhunted and placed in the post without the necessary qualifications. By the time Garane reached the end of the road, he had compiled an extensive dossier, which has been handed to his son for safe-keeping.

He painstakingly made his way through the grievance procedure, largely ignored and persistently disregarded at every level until, according to his brother, he was told at the very highest level “that there was nothing that could be done and he must take his problems outside,” presumably to the CCMA.

Most people leave Parliament or give up at that point. Garene had one option left to him to register his anger at Parliament. He called it a “protest suicide”, and in his office he shot himself, leaving a note for his wife explaining exactly what he had done.

His brother, Sithembiso Garane, who works for the Ekurhuleni municipality, confirmed that it was not only a protest against the 20 months of bullying that Lennox had endured. It was a protest on behalf of all those staff at Parliament who have been bullied into compliance. 

I had contacted Sithembiso when the Garane family publicly rejected the notion that their father, husband and son had shot himself over his contract.

From what I had been hearing from former parliamentary colleagues, the issue of the contract came nowhere close to the full story of why a someone would take his life. I felt I had misrepresented the man, and needed to apologise.

As we talked Sithembiso said something that made me realise that I owed it to Lennox to return to his story and fill in the gaps as best I could. I had skimmed the surface of the truth behind Garane’s “protest suicide”.

Sithembiso said his brother was pushed as far as suicide not only to publicly register his protest against the 20 months of abuse he had suffered at the hands of his manager. He wanted it made clear that this was also a protest against the way Parliament treats its staff and behaves generally.

He was angry, I could hear. But there was also some disbelief, even shock, when he referred to the way Parliament “trampled on the rights of its staff” He described himself as “disappointed” that a institution such as our Parliament was so riddled with “rot”.

He expressed anger that Parliament’ official spokesperson Moloto Mothapo had said in statement that Parliament “would prefer not to respond to damaging statements” made at the funeral, where the names of those complicit in Lennox’s story were revealed.

The reasons Mothapo gave were to, “assist the Garane family to fully heal and find closure” and in his statement he asked for “space and time ... for the institution to reflect on and deal with the findings and recommendations.”

In case the point had been missed, Mothapo added, “Parliament wishes to caution against the publishing of names of individuals in connection with untested allegations, as this borders on irresponsibility and may also be defamatory.”

Names have already been named, even in writing on the official Avbob funeral notice ‑ and presumably will be submitted to the parliamentary inquiry – but this barely concealed threat of defamatory action annoyed Sithembiso, who wanted to recount the story his brother had told him.

Lennox, a senior and experienced public sector manager previously employed by the Development Bank of Southern Africa, had been moved by his manager from the managerial post he had been appointed to and relegated to a post that was destined for retrenchment. His duties and responsibilities were delegated to others, without him being given a reason, or a warning, or any indication that he had failed to meet standards or comply with requirements, or any of the usual disciplinary procedures required by SA labour law.

Meanwhile, the contracts of colleagues were being renewed. But he heard nothing, until a letter was pushed beneath his door announcing that his ended in a month.

Garane’s son, also called Sithembiso, said in a separate interview that his father spoke often and frankly to him about his concerns about the nature and conduct of Parliament. One problem his father had singled out, said Sithembiso, was the practice of ruling party deployment.

“He did not have a problem with cadre deployment per se, as long as that person was suitably qualified and brought in skills and experience. It’s when Parliament chose staff in order to develop patronage,” that things go wrong, his father had warned. Sithembiso also recalled his father saying that there was a danger that Parliament used contracts to punish non-compliance with the party.

At the funeral service his son spoke movingly about how his father had taken a drop in salary to be appointed to Parliament “because he thought his contribution would be far greater in that institution.

“Little did he know that Parliament RSA was the pinnacle of suppression, intimidation and trampling of human rights.

Sithembiso spoke out strongly at the funeral: “My father told us that the whole system in our parliament was broken. And he was despondent and did not believe that there is any will by all charged with responsibility to change the situation. Rather, maintaining the system was to their benefit because it kept them powerful.

“My father’s death should be seen exactly as he said it was – a protest suicide. Certainly not a protest against contract non-renewal but a protest against (1) politicisation of administration, (2) gross abuse of power, (3) complete disregard of human rights and dignity.”

Aside from the veiled threat against repeating the names Sithembiso had spelled out in his funeral speech, the only action we have seen thus far on the part of Parliament is the introduction of security checks that match those in an international airport, and the suspension of one security official who happened to be on duty when Lennox Garane entered Parliament that morning carrying a gun on his person or in his bag.

When is someone going to suspend a bullying manager, an indifferent human resources official or anyone who is responsible for the wellbeing of parliamentary staff? The answer is: no time soon, because there is no such person.

The presiding officers, Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete and Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces Thandi Modise, had received a letter from Garane detailing his grievance, but according to his brother had received no reply. Other staff have written to them, as a last stopgap, but apparently Parliament’s Presiding Officers play a political role and cannot get involved in the administrative side of Parliament, if I correctly understood the HR official I spoke to.

There is the Joint Standing Committee on Financial Management of Parliament, which is in some way mandated to call the leadership of Parliament to account. I know of two people who have sent their submissions to it. They too are still waiting for a reply. Garane sent his dossier to the Committee co-chairpersons, but it was never shared with members of the Committee. This was confirmed in a statement from one of these Committee Members. Mike Waters from the DA.

In his statement he also said his party demands that the terms of reference of Parliament’s promised inquiry into the incident be made public and the names of those conducting the investigation be revealed. The process must be “fully transparent,” he said, to “give the grieving family the closure they deserve”.

The talk among parliamentary staff, however, is that nothing less than an official investigation can be believed or trusted. The Garane family echo this sentiment: “How can Parliament investigate itself,” Garane’s son said. “The Garane family holds Parliament entirely responsible for my father’s death,” he said.

Moira Levy

This article was also published in the Daily Maverick.

Last modified on Tuesday, 02 October 2018 14:15

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