South Africa

SA government: excellence, unforgiven

By Alex Eliseev 10 September 2013

We commissioned ALEX ELISEEV to write this article, but he showed such potential and loyalty that we had to let him retire at 32, with an immediate effect. This is his final act, but take note: an acting journalist has been appointed to eradicate the distractive and subversive effect of Mr Eliseev’s excellence and dedication. Who needs it, anyway?

The man in charge of South Africa’s prisons, Tom Moyane, was, by all accounts, doing a sterling job. Three years into his five-year contract, he was savvy with the media and had the kind of reputation police chief Riah Phiyega fantasizes about. He was known to call into radio shows to resolve scandals before the caller raising them had even hung up the phone. He also seemed to be steering the department’s finances in the right direction.

On Tuesday, he was called into a meeting of senior members of his department where minister S’bu Ndebele allegedly announced Moyane’s retirement. Someone in the room probably shouted “Surprise!”, but the voice was quickly drowned out by Moyane’s shocked gasp or deep sigh.

The very same day the department issued a media statement saying that Moyane had reached retirement age and was being replaced, at least for now, by an acting national commissioner. The department’s COO, Nontsikelelo Jolingana, was assigned to take over Moyane’s work.

“On behalf of the correctional services family [it’s a family now], we express our sincere gratitude to Mr. Moyane for his tireless efforts and contribution to the correctional services fraternity [sorry, make that a fraternity],” the statement, attributed to minister Ndebele, read. “Under his leadership, South Africa has made tremendous strides towards inculcating a human rights culture in our correctional system and ensuring safe, secure and humane incarceration”.

We’ll leave the debate on whether South African prisons offer “safe, secure and humane incarceration” for the comments section and instead deal with the glaring problems with Moyane’s so-called “retirement”.

When he was hired to serve a five-year contract in May 2010, he would have been 57 years old. So whoever was paging through his CV would surely have foreseen that, like day follows night or winter follows autumn, Moyane would turn 60 in 2013, with two years left before his contract expired.

Perhaps this was an oversight. But it probably wasn’t.

Three years sail by and Moyane turns 60 in January this year, celebrating with his friends at the department. A few more months pass and, in late August, the minister consults with his lawyers and throws the retirement rulebook at his prisons boss. Why? Great question. We don’t know either. Would anyone have noticed that Moyane had, technically, reached retirement age? Probably not.

Moyane then meets with the minister, seeks legal advice and waits for a follow up meeting, which was due to happen last week. Instead, he’s called to a public announcement of his departure.

Speaking on radio a day later Moyane was asked, “Are you the national commissioner of prisons or the former national commissioner of prisons?” He takes a deep breath and answers: “Former national commissioner”.

Regardless of how much Moyane was liked in the public space, the implications of his exit are serious. This is not a popular Idol being voted off a television show. His departure breaks the chain of continuity and will impact projects. In short, it will add some instability (no matter how much institutional memory there is). There will be new dynamics and, possibly, new scandals. Even worse, we will have another institution with an acting head.

(Ed: Breathe, Stephen Grootes… just breathe…)

The entire Moyane saga smells all too similar to the Mzwandile Petros affair. There, a very capable and admired Gauteng police commissioner was allowed to “leave” to be replaced first, by a man facing drunk-driving charges and then, when sense prevailed a few hours late, by a mostly unknown officer.

The police also tried to wave around the rulebook saying the Police Act doesn’t allow a provincial commissioner to serve more than two terms (which Petros had done in the Western Cape and in Gauteng). The Institute for Security Studies actually read the Act and pointed out that Riah Phiyega has the power to extend Petros’ term in office an infinite amount of times. So clearly, there was something else going on behind the scenes. Something sinister and ugly, perhaps.

Both Moyane and Petros have been the ultimate diplomats in the face of slap-palm-against-forehead stupidity. Petros is on record saying he never planned to stay longer than his term and has other projects to pursue. But it’s difficult to imagine that he would have turned down a more senior job that gave his life meaning. (When he was bowing out, callers phoned into radio shows to thank him for being an “officer and a gentleman”.)

Moyane also spoke on radio, saying he had a good relationship with his minister and everyone else in the department and steered away from speculating about why he was shown the door. He expressed disappointment and didn’t hide the fact that he would like to continue. But he never embarrassed his boss in public.

Even opposition parties agree that Moyane stabilized an organisation plagued by a high turnaround of commissioners and burdened with unnecessary contractors.

“He did much to ensure that contracts were properly awarded and that the DCS got value for money,” the DA said. “Mr Moyane has also helped in ensuring that the department’s finances are on their way to being in order”. This is high praise in the age of Jacob Zuma and his fraternity.

So, perhaps this was just a glitch in the Matrix and rules are rules. Or maybe it was politics. Feel free to make up your own mind.

Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi may have handed his enemies a loaded gun by having an extramarital affair, but his collapse is another example of the system chewing up and spitting out somebody who speaks truth to power and does his job. There are many other examples of this, but enough words have been spent on the mess at the National Prosecuting Authority and some of its specialised units. The bottom line is that a country can’t function if civil servants who excel are pushed out and the institutions they are responsible for are weakened.

Who’s next? Aaron Motsoaledi? He should have gone to a private hospital like the other ministers. Thuli Madonsela? She’s definitely bracing against the wind, especially over her Nkandlagate investigation. You get the point…

Moyane may decide to fight this all the way, or he may not. But the damage has been done. This time to a department that really can’t afford to take any punches. DM

Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev

Photo: Tom Moyane, national commissioner of South Africa’s Correctional Services, speaks at the opening of a two-day colloquium on overcrowding in prisons in Boksburg, Monday, 19 November 2012. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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