South Africa

Op-Ed: How sexual violence and corruption have converged within our politics

By Lisa Vetten 11 December 2017

The sordid actions of sleazy individuals in politics and government are important illustrations of the need for legal reform when it comes to sexual abuse and harassment in South Africa. By LISA VETTEN.

The #GuptaLeaks taught us a great deal about how systems of patronage, kickbacks and tender rigging can be used to steal a state. But this is not their only educational value. Buried within this trove of information is a set of e-mails hinting at yet another dimension of corruption, one where sexual favours are extracted through blackmail, fear and threats, and gifts and cash payouts made to settle and conceal these demands.

This particular form of corruption and its presence in our politics has attracted far too little attention. #NotOurLeaders sought to challenge this by using the 16 Days of Activism to focus on violence towards women and girls by political representatives, as well as the ways in which it is enabled by our political structures.

Our chief focus was the 11 cases of rape, sexual harassment and assault either reported or finalised in 2017. Another nine cases (largely reported on between 2013 and 2016) were also included, largely for purposes of comparison. Given its status as the majority party, most cases inevitably involved the ANC – but the DA and IFP figured too.

Forms of wrongdoing included demanding sex for jobs or promotions, verbal and physical harassment, sexual assault, and rape – including of girls. While some cases resulted in criminal charges, and others were the focus of disciplinary action, very few resulted in negative consequences for the wrongdoer. Five stood out as examples of how sexual violence and corruption have converged within our politics.

Malibongwe Ngcai and Basil Mase, for example, were implicated in demanding sex for jobs. The Bhisho Legislature instituted disciplinary proceedings which resulted in a guilty finding against the two. However, they escaped sanctions by resigning from the Legislature on 31 May and starting their new jobs in the Eastern Cape Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) on 1 June.

Municipal manager of Sekhukhune municipality, Phakane Phahlamohlaka, is yet another example. He was finally suspended in May 2017 after an investigation recommended that he face a disciplinary enquiry for demanding sex in exchange for promotions. (One woman was reported to have spent eight years trying to get her managers to take her complaints seriously.) Phahlamohlaka saw no reason to face an enquiry and offered to resign instead. Mayor Stanley Ramaila proposed that the council allow him to do so and also pay him out R600,000 over six months, along with senior manager benefits. Both SAMWU and the opposition objected so it’s not known whether Phahlamohlaka got his way or not.

One person who did receive his golden handshake was Pakamile Pongwana, the former CEO of ICASA. Pongwana was suspended after an investigation recommended that he face disciplinary action for sexual harassment and other misconduct. Pongwana resigned soon afterwards and in November the Minister of Communications announced that negotiations had resulted in a settlement of almost R1-million with him.

These individuals are but mere beginners in comparison to George Mthimunye, the current Executive Manager of Corporate Services in the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature. His harassment of Esther Mahlangu-Mathibela between 1998 and 2001 has cost the JS Moroka municipality more than R3.5-million in damages, with the claim still being dealt with by the Pretoria High Court in 2015. The municipality has also not sought to recover any of this money from Mthimunye (although entitled to do so by law) – but it did opt to pay Mthimunye’s legal fees. In addition, although the municipality initially sought to take disciplinary action against Mthimunye, he resigned and reportedly received a R5-million settlement from the municipality.

From the JS Moroka municipality Mthimunye went to the Naledi municipality where he was suspended in 2010 due to his involvement in tender irregularities. Two years later, reportedly on the recommendation of the ANC’s deployment committee, and despite the legal proceedings related to his harassment of Ms Mahlangu-Mathibela, he was appointed the manager of the Emalahleni Municipality. In 2013 the municipality was placed under administration and Mthimunye was suspended yet again. In early 2014 he resigned to take up his new post in the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature. There, yet another set of complaints of sexual harassment were received about him in 2016 – but these were “resolved amicably”.

Laws exist to curb this conduct – but it is testament to these men’s political connections that they were so ably flouted.

The regulations to the Municipal Systems Act recognise that some people resign precisely to escape disciplinary action and so make it compulsory to notify the Minister and provincial MEC of the resignation of a municipal staff member prior to the completion of any disciplinary hearing. Given this stance, it may well constitute fraud to offer generous settlements to those seeking to avoid the consequences of their actions. This clause should also be extended to apply across the public services, as well as staff at legislatures.

Conversely, certain of the regulations to the Public Service Act applicable to staff employed by government departments should be extended to municipal employees. These regulations contain a four-year prohibition against re-employing someone in the public service if there was a disciplinary finding that they committed sexual harassment. However, it only applies to people who were found guilty – not those who resigned prior to the finalisation of proceedings.

Still other gaps exist in relation to MPs and staff employed in legislatures. With no legislation specific to their appointment and dismissal in relation to sexual harassment, general labour legislation must be relied upon instead. The fit is not always a good one, however.

In the final analysis, these cases are so much more than the sordid doings of sleazy individuals, or important illustrations of the need for legal reform. They lay bare the sexualised workings of power in our politics and the ways these degrade political institutions and structures. Yet our many debates around patronage, corruption and the shadow state seldom draw these links. DM

Lisa Vetten is a Mellon Doctoral candidate in the Wits City Institute at Wits University. She has worked on issues of violence against women for over 20 years. This article was based on work for #NotOurLeaders by Vetten, with Sam Waterhouse and Vivienne Mentor-Lalu (The Women and Democracy Initiative), and Sanja Bornman, (Lawyers for Human Rights). Please use this link to let us know how you think political leadership should respond to these cases.

Photo: A protester hold up a sign at a #MeToo rally in front of the Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle in New York, New York, USA, 09 December 2017. EPA-EFE/PETER FOLEY

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