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14 December 2017 10:12 (South Africa)
South Africa

Reporter’s Notebook: Parliament, not a happy workplace

  • Marianne Merten
    Marianne-Merten.jpg
    Marianne Merten
  • South Africa
Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa during oral replies at the National Assembly in Parliament, Cape Town. South Africa. 12/08/2015. Siyabulela Duda (GCIS)

When acting Secretary to Parliament Baby Tyawa and senior managers this week appeared before the Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament, they were sent packing to redraft financial statements and spending plans in a format that enabled proper scrutiny. And the oversight committee noted it had yet to be officially informed of the special leave for Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana, or of the investigation by the institution’s audit committee into claims of mismanagement and irregularities. On Friday 9 June, Parliament publicly announced Mgidlana’s special leave with immediate effect amid calls from the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) for his suspension. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

Tensions at Parliament have not only flared up in the House in acrimonious verbal sparring across the floor for all to see, and in repeat evictions of EFF MPs by parliamentary staff dressed in white shirts, officially known as chamber support officials.

Tensions also have simmered below the public visage of the national legislature since the wildcat industrial action in late 2015 by National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) over performance bonuses and conditions of service, including the union’s opposition to vetting by the State Security Agency (SSA). Police were on the precinct, using smoke and stun grenades against striking workers on November 11, 2015.

While Nehawu members who represent the majority of the just over 1,300 staff at Parliament returned to work in early December 2015, unhappiness remained over the still to be paid performance bonuses and this has been heightened by various incidents around Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana to which the union objected.

On 18 July, 2016 Nehawu marched to the public protector’s office in central Cape Town to submit its official complaint, claiming Mgidlana’s abuse of power and mismanagement. The complaint listed his use of blue lights, the R1.8-million international travel for benchmarking trips to other parliaments in England, Scotland and Turkey, the R71,000 ex gratia payment received just a few months into the job, and questions over his qualifications and security clearance.

Subsequently, Nehawu’s parliamentary branch also raised, both publicly and internally, its concerns over a just over R30,000 bursary Mgidlana received and his chairing of the special bid adjudication committee, having signed off himself on the proposal by the supply chain management secretariat of the administration, according to a memorandum dated November 2016 seen by Daily Maverick.

Throughout these tensions, a series of public media statements issued by Parliament said Mgidlana had at all times acted within policy and prescripts and dismissed such claims as part of a campaign to impugn the person of the Secretary to Parliament, as a statement as far back as May 14, 2016 put it, “in pursuit of political agendas and campaigns”. Nehawu’s parliamentary branch more recently was again fingered for driving such a campaign in Mgidlana’s public statement of June 4, 2017 after the prospect of no staff salaries was raised by opposition parties in Parliament’s budget vote debate on May 30.

“… any insinuation that Parliament has decided against salary increments is erroneous and without any factual basis. The prevailing financial challenges confronting the institution cannot be solved by one party alone,” said Mgidlana on June 4. “It is unfortunate that the union leadership has thus far not demonstrated any desire for constructive and meaningful engagement, despite Parliament’s efforts to reach out. Instead, it has resorted to distortions, character assassinations and falsehoods in the media.”

During the debate on Vote 2, Parliament, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, who is also ANC national chairperson, was embarrassed as opposition parties almost without fail objected to a prospect of no increases for parliamentary employees.

EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu put it bluntly. “Mgidlana, who is protected by the Speaker, he disrespects workers… he gives himself bursaries and all sorts of things,” said Shivambu, reminding the House that the EFF rejected Mgidlana’s appointment from December 2014, and calling on Parliament to take action. “It’s not good, workers of Parliament are striking against one man. We are being held hostage by one man.”

And weighing in was DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen: “Since Mr Mgidlana’s arrival in our Parliament there has been a rapid decline in industrial relations and for many this is not a happy place to work.”

In closing the debate, Mbete reiterated her earlier comment, also reflected by National Council of Provinces (NCOP) Chairperson Thandi Modise’s separate but concurrent address, that staff were Parliament’s best asset. “As presiding officers, we are very clear that we cannot have a situation where staff do not get an increase. We have said that very clearly,” she said, adding that the various “allegations and grievances” Nehawu had raised against the Secretary to Parliament were matters on which presiding officers had interacted with the audit committee.

After almost two years, matters have come to a head.

At Wednesday evening’s meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament the issue staff salaries and increases emerged. And the committee also raised its concerns as to how Parliament’s administration presented its financials.

We are becoming seriously concerned you’re doing it to make oversight difficult. We will unravel it,” said committee co-chairman ANC MP Vincent Smith, who earlier also raised the committee’s concern over how performance targets were represented. “We are not happy (with what you give us). It’s not measurable. It’s not specific and we can’t do oversight… 100% target met for translation. What does that mean? Points of order are raised because translation isn’t working in the House.”

Acting Secretary to Parliament Baby Tyawa said the information was available. “We’ll have to reconsider and repackage our information,” she said. “The information given to the committee does not give the narrative or percentages. It is not difficult to do and we will do that.”

Senior parliamentary managers were grilled on the figures, particularly as Parliament recorded an underspend of R185-million, unaudited, as of 31 March, 2017 when the 2016/17 financial year ended. It emerged that R92-million of that underspend related to employee compensation, or salaries, as posts vacated are not filled. The senior managers undertook to provide the committee with information on the “69 critical vacant posts” it had cited in its documentation.

EFF MP Veronica Mente queried why Parliament reflected R902-million for staff compensation, when salaries amounted to R875-million, and disputed the explanation that the higher amount also included leave and pension. “Leave is not part and parcel of the actual amount (for salaries).”

And the committee wanted to know where in Parliament reflected its allocation for committees, or “the engine of Parliament”. ANC MP Connie September said it was unclear how Parliament determined its priorities. “We are now at the point where our constitutional obligations are hindered,” she said. “Why do you still have, in 2017, poor people not coming to Parliament? What is Parliament doing? Where are the allocations to support this?”

It emerged that the rands and cents for committees are divided between compensation of employees, including support staff such as committee secretaries, content advisers and researchers, and goods and services, which includes travel, photocopying, telephones, printing and hiring of venues.

In closing the meeting, which also discussed the just over R1-billion underfunding between what the national legislature had requested and what it got – R2.3-billion for the current 2017/18 financial year – Smith said: “The funding model of Parliament just does not tie up with our responsibilities.”

It wasn’t an easy meeting for Parliament’s senior managers on Wednesday evening as parliamentarians asserted their oversight under the Financial Management of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act.

But then, the committee has a track record of asking awkward questions. Like the one by September at the 11 May meeting with regards to the R400 danger pay paid monthly when Parliament is in session for the chamber support officials, who have made headlines repeatedly in the often bruising evictions, particularly of EFF MPs.

Yes, indeed it is being finalised and implemented since February,” responded Mgidlana, who later added: “We benchmarked the danger pay with what the public service also puts forward… It was approved and authorised by the executive authority (the presiding officers), based on our motivation, as something that we need for the institution going forward.”

In response to a DA question at the committee’s meeting of 18 February, Mgidlana acknowledged that his statutorily required performance agreement had not yet been signed, although engagements with presiding officers were ongoing. At the time, it was 46 weeks into the 2016/17 financial year during which Mgidlana earned R2.8-million, as reflected in Parliament’s latest annual report.

It’s unlikely to be an easy ride as the committee said there would be two extraordinary meetings on policies – Parliament submitted a list of over 40, it emerged at Wednesday’s meeting – and one on human resource matters.

All this comes as Mgidlana is on special leave pending an investigation by the audit committee into various claims made against him – and the public protector probe.

As Smith stated at the start of Wednesday’s committee meeting: “We cannot be oblivious there have been developments in the office of the Secretary to Parliament. We cannot but give support to any effort, the running of Parliament is above reproach.”

And here a number of questions arise.

While the terse debate on Parliament’s budget was accompanied by a Nehawu protest, Mgidlana already a day earlier had written to the presiding officers regarding special leave. “The secretary to Parliament wrote to the presiding officers on 29 May 2017, requesting to be placed on special leave while allegations levelled against him by… Nehawu are investigated,” said Parliament’s statement on June 9.

This came after Baleka Mbete met Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane over the probe of Mgidlana on May 24, according to a source with inside knowledge who cannot be identified because of lack of authorisation to speak publicly on this.

Parliament had missed a 25 April deadline of submitting documents requested by the public protector, according to City Press and TimesLive. According to the public protector’s spokesperson Cleopatra Mosana, the new deadline was 25 May, 2017. Mosana declined to comment on what documents were requested in the first place and which, if any, had actually been submitted. “Disclosure of confidential information, which is part of the investigation, will comprise the investigation process,” said Mosana, adding that no new deadline had been set.

It could well be that the public protector probe might await the outcome of Parliament’s audit committee investigation. At this stage it remains unclear how, if at all, these investigations will relate.

Questions also arise over Parliament’s audit committee investigation. No time frames have been announced publicly, although the probe was officially confirmed by the Office of the Speaker to Nehawu in a letter seen by Daily Maverick; nor have the terms of reference been publicised.

Parliament’s spokesperson Moloto Mothapo did not respond to SMS and email requests for comment on when the audit committee probe would start, its terms of reference, and the conditions of Mgidlana’s special leave.

Special leave, depending on the conditions, is different to suspension that bars the relevant official from all aspects of the workplace. This difference was highlighted when Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) on Tuesday was told that National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) advocates Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi, currently on special leave pending their appeal against a September 2016 court ruling striking them off the roll of advocates, had been called to the office at least once, and could be again when needed.

And so Nehawu is disappointed in Mgidlana’s special leave when it called for his suspension. “He still has access to his emails… He’ll run Parliament from home,” Nehawu parliamentary branch Chairman Sthembiso Tembe at a union meeting last Friday. “We hear he’s destroying documents in his office. What we have in our possession is more than enough to show him the door.”

Mothapo also did not respond to requests for comment on claims that documents are being destroyed, submitted at the same time as the other points for comment.

In calling for Mgidlana’s suspension at the end of May, Nehawu expressed its concern that the integrity of the audit committee could be compromised. “He (Mgidlana) is an accounting officer and may seek to interfere with the outcome. His position of power may have an intimidating effect on potential witnesses, particularly on managers who rely on his good favour for the renewal of their contracts,” said the union’s letter to Parliament’s presiding officers dated 31 May, 2017 seen by Daily Maverick.

In a similar vein, the union last Friday called for open and public access to audit committee investigation.

What unfolds now not only with regards to investigations into Mgidlana’s conduct in office, but also the broader funding of Parliament’s running from staff salaries to committee work, will determine the path of the people’s Parliament. DM

Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa during oral replies at the National Assembly in Parliament, Cape Town. South Africa. 12/08/2015. Siyabulela Duda (GCIS)

  • Marianne Merten
    Marianne-Merten.jpg
    Marianne Merten
  • South Africa

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