January 18, 2021

The inconvenient truth of an Administration in crisis

MARTINA DELLA TOGNA, former multimedia manager at Parliament, attended the most recent meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on the Oversight of the Financial Management of Parliament. She was joined by the sons of Lennox Garane, the parliamentary manager who recently committed suicide in his office. They were hoping to hear some answers from the Committee.

The Joint Standing Committee on the Oversight of the Financial Management of Parliament has a serious credibility challenge on its hands. A relatively new Committee, its name does raise questions about the extent to which it exercises oversight over those who run Parliament, namely the Speaker of the National Assembly and her counterpart in the National Council of Provinces, collectively known as the Executive Authority, and the top management of Parliament’s Administration.

What is not clear is whether the Executive Authority feels in any way obliged to account to this Joint Standing Committee? The power relations between this Committee and the Executive Authority is still to be tested on these matters.

Why is the Parliament Administration in such a toxic mess?

That is in part why I accompanied members of Lennox Garane’s family to the Committee’s most recent meeting, held on 31 October. Garane will be remembered as the senior parliamentary manager, who after enduring two years of excessive bullying and professional disrespect which culminated in his contract being terminated in the most disrespectful manner, shot himself in office. He left a note for his wife and instructions to his family, making it clear that his was a protest suicide against staff conditions in Parliament.

There can be no greater personal sacrifice than that made by a person committed to their ideals. Death by protest suicide is the ultimate expression of protest against oppression.

Seeing no other alternative, Lennox Garane came to work on Friday 14th September 2018, with a gun in his briefcase, determined and prepared. A lifetime academic and professional committed to governance and justice, Lennox Garane had presented evidence of the abuse he had endured to this Committee, but no one listened.

When a single sharp shot rang out on the second floor of Parliament’s 90 Plein Street offices, at last the nation heard.

Many submissions have been directed to the Joint Standing Committee on the Oversight of the Financial Management of Parliament about parliamentary staff grievances, including Lennox Garane’s dossier, but it, along with other staff submissions, were not shared with the members of the Committee. MPs are only now starting to connect the dots.

His son, Sithembiso Garane, and I had discussed attending the JSC meeting. The Committee was meeting to consider the report by management on the Annual Report of Parliament. Convinced that HR issues would feature in this report, we decided to go to listen and hear.

I met Sithembiso and his younger brother, Siya, outside Parliament’s visitors’ entrance. With other staff members, we sat flanking these two young men who remind me of my own sons. We were there to bear witness. Garane’s sons had last been there a month ago to fetch their father’s spirit, in the funeral procession to the Eastern Cape. We knew that at the Committee venue we would all be facing the tormentors of their father.

MPs were running late but the meeting eventually began with the presentation by the Acting Secretary to Parliament on Parliament’s Annual Report.

Committee members expressed concern about the issues affecting Parliament’s Administration and asked about labour relations, the inquiry into Lennox Garane’s death and the disciplinary hearing of suspended former Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana. MPs expressed concern at the length of time it is taking for matters to be resolved.

The meeting ended with senior management deferring some of the issues to the Executive Authority, despite being advised that the Executive Authority is implicated in some of the matters of the Administration; they cannot institute an inquiry into themselves.

The Committee has written to the Executive Authority insisting on an update on the disciplinary hearing and the suicide inquiry. The Committee also tasked management with providing an analysis of why so many staff members have left Parliament in the past financial year.

Over three financial years (2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18) there have been 144 terminations of employment, notably 122 in the highly skilled specialists and management level staff. These include 92 resignations, 18 retirements due to ill health, nine deaths and 27 early retirements.

With one investigation by the Hawks, and an Independent Audit Investigation already conducted. And given that it holds a formidable collection of dossiers of evidence of abuse of power and accusing the former Secretary to Parliament and his senior management team of gross misconduct/alternatively misconduct, all dismissible offences, Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on the Oversight of the Financial Management of Parliament is about to face its most serious test to date.

The Parliament Administration staff is a battered team of 1,300 walking wounded officials wondering what will hit them next. Just a week before Garane’s death, a former colleague had messaged me, telling me how depressed she is at work and that she is feeling suicidal. She asked me to be a reference on her CV as she wanted to leave Parliament. “I’m having suicidal thoughts,” she told me. “I sleep, walk and wake up in tears.”

I felt sick. I was chatting to another woman, a mother of young children, a well-qualified Parliament official with great experience and attitude expressing serious workplace-induced depression. I urged her to go for counselling. I know for a fact she is not the only one feeling this way. So many of us have fallen victim to the horrors of the precinct… why is the Parliament Administration in such a toxic mess?

Could it be that the Executive Authority, due to its two and a half years of inaction, the former Secretary to Parliament, the Acting Secretary to Parliament and fellow implicated managers are in breach of the Financial Management of Parliament and Legislatures Act (FMPPLA), and even the Constitution? There is compelling evidence that the Executive Authority cannot escape their role in the abuse of power and the concomitant consequences.

The law spells out what is expected of the Executive Authority of Parliament. The legal constitutional question is who holds the Executive Authority to account when it has failed in its political management of the Administration?

Speaker Baleka Mbete and Chairperson Thandi Modise have agreed to a credible independent inquiry into Parliament’s Administration and an official police inquest into the death of Lennox Garane. Let the terms of reference of the inquiry start with the body count. The human stories behind these numbers is where the truth lies.

After the death of Michael Coetzee, highly respected Secretary to Parliament who had led the Administration through the transition between the 4th and 5th democratic Parliaments, the Parliament staff expected the same of the new STP.

Trouble started brewing for the Administration with the appointment of Gengezi Mgidlana as Secretary to Parliament in December 2014. Little did I know that exactly a year later, on 14th December 2015, the same Mgidlana would suspend me, and four weeks later terminate my employment without giving me a chance to clear my name.

He did so knowing my dismissal would send a signal to the rest of the managers who he perceived as the enemy from within. Mgidlana had no regard for my right to freedom of expression, association and for the fundamental right to clear my name.

Within Parliament’s own Administration Mgidlana and his senior managers pursued a pattern of destructive ‘change management’, a crude ‘slash and burn’ show of force which barks orders and takes no prisoners. Mgidlana appeared to enjoy wielding the power of the state as a management tool against his own staff. The Speaker and the Chairperson appeared to allow him to get away with it.

Three cases are currently before the office of the Public Protector, the most recent laid by myself on 1 June 2017.

In two and a half eventful years the new Secretary to Parliament presided over a series of spectacular administrative bungles, from exacerbated labour disputes to abuse of security forces in contravention of the Constitution.

I loved my job. I love the idea of a People’s Parliament. It is an honour and privilege to work there and use my skills to make a difference to the people of this country. But the political tempo shifted at that time, after the 5th Democratic Parliament was established in mid-2014.

The staff was fed up and many managers were concerned about the pattern that was emerging. Senior managers began falling foul of Mgidlana’s maladministration. The National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) that represented parliamentary staff too had had enough of Mgidlana and on 6 November 2015, the union went on an unprecedented month-long strike against the untenable working conditions.

During the volatile strike staff picketed on the precinct, disrupted committee meetings and on one occasion were attacked by public order police. Two weeks into the strike, a staff lock out was enforced, and striking Parliamentary officials were replaced by military and naval cadets. At times it felt like all the Public Order Police vehicles had been deployed to Parliament, to manage 800 striking workers.

When senior management cancelled the official memorial service of one of the graphic designers in the multimedia team, Keith De Wet, who had passed away during the strike, I had to arrange a hasty memorial for a traumatised staff in the streets. Let me repeat that. We had to hold a memorial service for one of Parliament’s long serving staff members ON THE STREET. Senior management was losing touch with its humanity. Four weeks into the oppressive strike, I had also had enough.

I discussed my concerns with management peers within the Administration. It was evident we were all aggrieved. We agreed to draft a Memo of Concern by Managers and Specialists. The memo was circulated, edited, discussed and refined during the course of a series of meetings across the precinct, until the consensus version was put to signature. A total of 64 parliamentary managers signed the memo addressed to the Secretary to Parliament and the Executive Authority, requesting a general management forum meeting to discuss urgent matters pertaining to the management of the strike and labour relations.

The memo was leaked to the Secretary to Parliament and the Presiding Officers before it could be officially handed in with the full set of signatures. The memo was also leaked to the media. I was suspended for being the main author, facilitator and custodian of the memo.

The Secretary launched an internal investigation into the memo and its signatories. The fear of reprisals took hold of the Administration with the Secretary making his views clear on his intentions to “personally deal with managers who for any reason do not action the instructions,” adding that “the time for ambivalence of managers is over”. He said that the meetings we had held were illegal as such meetings “are only convened by the STP [Secretary to Parliament].”

Senior management announced that a meeting of the Management Forum will be convened by the Secretary to Parliament where he would “reiterate the institution’s position regarding managers who hold Nehawu membership and the implications of them not implementing institutional instructions.”

During 2016 and early 2017 more officials and union leaders were suspended, or threatened with suspension. Some key demotions happened within the senior management team, amongst these, the Chief Legal Advisor, Adv. Zuraya Adhikarie, and Head of Policy Management, Joe Phaweni. Others started leaving the institution, unable to tolerate the highly toxic work environment where bullying was the standard operating procedure.

Parliament lost its Head of Research, its Head of Members’ Interests, its Head of Protocol and many other experienced managers. Other managers’ contracts were simply not renewed, with no reason given and little advance warning. The abuse of contracts as a tool to manipulate managers into submission was on the increase contrary to the principles of the Labour Relations Act and administrative justice.  

The roll-call of victims includes the Chief Legal Advisor, the Head of Policy, Head and deputy Head of Security, the Multimedia Manager, the Content and Information Manager, many staff and various union leaders. But most tragic of all is the death of International Relations and Protocol Manager, Lennox Garane.

The Garane family had made a public call for any victims of bullying to come forward with information in an effort to expose and stop the ruthless working environment within the Administration. For the first time since I left Parliament I spoke publically about my own dismissal. A number of other victims of the Parliament’s Administration spoke up, including former Parliament Head of Security, Zelda Holtzman, and the Deputy Head of Security, Motlatsi Mokgatla. Other officials still within the Administration spoke to the media on condition of anonymity. The rule of fear prevails in uncertain times. Our House of Horrors has the somber pall of death over it. No flags were flown at half-mast for Lennox Garane but many staff have acknowledged to me and others that he sacrificed his life to draw attention to our plight.

The inconvenient truth is that the state of Parliament deteriorated rapidly during the past five years, coinciding with the National Legislature’s most vigorous defence of the former president and his cabinet. Parliament’s silence on flagrant state capture has almost destroyed this country. The institutional bastion of democracy, the highest symbol of people’s power, became synonymous with abuse of power. Its leaders and top administrators became Orwellian caricatures, memes of mirth and outrage in South Africa’s social media landscape. This is the Administration in which Lennox Garane worked.

Will his death prompt the Chief Whips Forum to find the joint political will to tackle the problems of the Administration? It is in the interests of the current and future members of Parliament to have a functional, efficient and committed workforce. It is this workforce that will support members to be more effective in oversight, thus preventing any future attempts to capture the state.

Chief Whips, in the interests of the future of this country, please call your house to order.

Martina Della Togna was former multimedia manager at Parliament. She was suspended and dismissed by the former Secretary to Parliament for organising a management meeting to address Parliament’s management of labour relations.

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 November 2018 19:47

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Notes from the House is an independent online publication that tracks and monitors Parliament’s role in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to improve the lives of South African citizens. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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