November 18, 2019

Who will guard the guards?

The long-overdue vote on the outcome of the protracted disciplinary hearing of suspended Secretary to Parliament, Gengezi Mgidlana, was in the end uneventful. However, what was unusual about this plenary session was the unanimous cross-party agreement in both Houses. All parties voted in favour of the motion that Mgidlana be summarily dismissed on the grounds of serious misconduct.

It is unusual to have all parties in full accord when it comes to voting: that’s usually reserved for motions of condolence where inter-party bickering would be in bad taste. But then this was not a debate about Mgidlana. It reflected a dysfunctional parliament of which Mgidlana was merely a symptom.

What came up several times was the issue of cadre deployment. The opposition sounded a clear warning of the extent to which it damages and compromises parliament. The second theme that came up during the debate in the National Assembly on October 17 was the allegation of “protection”. It is broadly accepted that in parliament the upper echelons of political and parliamentary power protect select senior level offenders who breach parliamentary rules and/or the legislation governing parliament.

This debate was an opportunity for parliament to reassert the significance of its overriding role – oversight – and the importance of parliament delivering on this fundamental responsibility.

These are serious issues, and speak to much of what is currently wrong with our parliament.

“Parliament has a duty to hold itself and its office-bearers to a higher standard, particularly because this House is charged with holding the executive and organs of state accountable to it,” came from the statement by then chief whip of the opposition.

“That means that there is a higher duty to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We can’t do this credibly if we don’t take appropriate action timeously against office-bearers of this Parliament in an effective way.”

Referring to an art installation at the front of the New Assembly comprising phrases taken from the Bill of Rights plastered across each step leading up to the entrance of the National Assembly chamber, he said: “Oversight and accountability cannot be nice words that we put on the steps coming into the House if we are not prepared to practice them in everything we do.”

He went on to say, “there is a time to come and there is a time to go. Sadly, the Secretary to Parliament’s time to go was three years ago.”

He reminded the House of a quote: “‘It is never too late to do the right thing’. As this House, this is the right thing for us to be doing. The Speaker and Executive Authority and Parliament are sending a very clear message out that we are not going to allow Mr Mgidlana, given the serious gravity of the charges that he has been found guilty of, to slip off into the night into another cushy job, and that he is going to be dismissed by Parliament as a result of his actions.

“What this does is that it sends out the right message throughout the organisation that if you do wrong, you will be held accountable. So, while it has taken a long time to get to where we are today, and to this serving before us, it is the right motion and it is the right thing to do.”

He commended and congratulated the post-election Executive Authority for supporting the chair of the disciplinary committee who recommended Mgidlana be summarily fired. This was repeated by other speakers.

Congratulations for such long overdue action may seem somewhat misplaced when they appear to have been reluctantly implemented years after the first charges were laid, but this action came none too soon. With only ten weeks to go before Mgidlana’s contract was due to expire, it was beginning to look as if he would be allowed to exit parliament scot-free, with a clear record and no repercussions.

This may signal an important change within parliament’s leadership, which now comprises Thandi Modise, the Speaker of the National Assembly, and her counterpart in the National Council of Provinces, Amos Mosondo, as the current Executive Authority. Nevertheless it should be asked why it took so long, dragging on into the sixth month of the new parliament.

Mgidlana’s brief sojourn into the position of Secretary to Parliament which barely lasted halfway into the term before he was suspended, will be remembered for the bitter staff opposition he generated that resulted in parliament’s first-ever strike, and in due course a staff lockout. Management-versus-worker contestation had not been expressed before in South Africa’s democratic parliament. It belongs to the factory floor or the mines where employers and employees traditionally contest diametric interests.

The protracted investigation into Mgidlana and the disciplinary process against the most senior official at parliament helped unveil an already troubled political and personal style of management and leadership that needs attention. Urgently. Several speakers, before voting for the motion, made the point that this must never again happen in parliament.

Nqabayomzi Kwankwa of the United Democratic Movement (UDM) said, “As we celebrate this long overdue victory, we have to take steps to ensure that this does not happen again.”

He spelled it out bluntly: “the Secretary to Parliament at the time was getting protection from some people in the Executive Authority,” he declared. How else could allegations of serious misconduct and corruption against the person at the pinnacle of parliament’s administration be left to fester for so long?

In a letter written on behalf of his party in 2016 he “raised precisely some of the allegations which are contained in the order paper and the motion today”. He appealed to the then Speaker of Parliament to investigate these matters.

She gave an assurance that she would do so, he said, but “a month and a half later there was a budget vote here, Budget Vote 2, where she exonerated Mr Mgidlana of any wrongdoing at the time.”

We don’t know how many such letters were submitted to the Executive Authority (although it is known that a written appeal for intervention from manager Lennox Garane was sent and ignored, and he later committed suicide in parliament). What is known is that the National Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) laid official charges in 2016. That was around the time the police came onto the precinct and shot teargas at toyi-toying parliamentary workers.

Said Kwankwa: “Nehawu workers raised these issues consistently and they were ignored. They were beaten up by the police outside, teargassed for raising these irregularities and the corruption that was taking place.”

The only action taken was to grant Mgidlana his request for special leave. After the Audit Committee’s investigation he was suspended on full pay of R2.8 million a year, which prompted the EFF to say, “this was not a dismissal but another golden handshake”.

One speaker after another expressed regret at this drain on the fiscus and the hope that these misplaced funds can be recovered, at the knowledge that corruption and cadre deployment takes place not only throughout the civil service but also, the investigation demonstrated, within parliament itself, and that parliament was able, in the words of the EFF, to employ as Secretary a “a self-seeking thug … who came to enrich himself”.

The deputy chief whip of the majority party had the last word. Speaking in Siswati, she declared, “we are the members of this very National Legislature. We are the ones who must reinforce the laws ... If anyone is found guilty of corruption, if one is temporarily suspended from work, [he or she] must not get his salary ... That person must be made to pay back all the monies he defrauded.

“As Parliament, by reinforcing strict rules [we] will make those people deter from (sic) stealing from the government funds or from Parliament.

“We need to ... tighten [those laws] so that this corruption comes to an end, because it is a cancer that is killing our country.”

In English she made it clear: “the ANC commends and welcomes the decision by the Executive Authority to take the necessary steps and deal with this issue.”

In short, the only person who seemed to have a problem with the outcome of the debate was Mgidlana himself. The Houses had barely risen before he was spitting out threats of legal reprisal, and within days Mgidlana’s lawyer announced his client would challenge his summary dismissal and intended taking the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

Moira Levy

 

Last modified on Thursday, 14 November 2019 14:13

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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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