First Published by Notes from the House
After a long silence, the former deputy head of the Parliamentary Protection Services (PPS), Matlatsi Mokgatla, who was placed on precautionary suspension in July 2015, has resurfaced demanding the opportunity to clear his name.
He, along with former PPS boss Zelda Holtzman, were suspended amid allegations of security breaches after objecting to the recruitment of police officers in the PPS and questioning the appointment of a junior security official as the person in charge of police deployment in the Chamber.
Mokgatla was also accused of leaking confidential information to the media, which he strongly denies, and he has called on Parliament to prove this by identifying the journalist or media house to which he is alleged to have passed on information.
Mokgatla wants Parliament to produce evidence of its allegations of security breaches. In the absence of alternative dispute mechanisms, he has turned to the Joint Standing Committee on Financial Management of Parliament, requesting it to “look into issues” relating to the tenure of the Secretary to Parliament, Gengezi Mgidlana.
“If anyone subverted the security operations of Parliament that is a serious thing. Why doesn’t Parliament charge me? It cannot be correct for Parliament to deny me my rights to be heard [and] treated equally like all its other employees,” Mokgatla said.
In an exclusive interview, he said that he wanted a chance to clear his name through the usual parliamentary disciplinary procedures. However, that opportunity has been denied to him because his contract of employment expired a few months after his suspension, and with it went any rights to the hearing that parliamentary staff are entitled to.
Most senior managerial appointments at Parliament are for four or five year contracts. During Mgidlana’s term of office, the contracts of at least three long-serving senior officials had expired without being renewed. But they had been given the option of a one-year stay of execution to find employment elsewhere.
Not so for Mokgatla. It was only when Parliament stopped payment of his salary in December 2015 that he learned that his contract had unceremoniously ended, after more than 10 years of service at Parliament. He confirmed he has never been called to a disciplinary hearing or been notified of any charges brought against him.
Holtzman had undergone a protracted process which only ended this year, with all charges withdrawn and a settlement of eight months’ salary.
Mokgatla now wants to go through a similar process so that his voice can be heard.
“I submit that this process will assist in establishing the real facts [surrounding] my suspension. I had refused to carry out Mgidlana’s unlawful instructions which he deemed insubordination and victimised me. Mr Mgidlana received preferential treatment [for] things that were never extended to previous Secretaries to Parliament. I believe if I hadn’t been in this position with the STP [Secretary to Parliament] my contract would not have been terminated.”
His suspension, and that of his manager, Holtzman, came after months of simmering tension with Mgidlana during which they raised their complaints with the Presiding Officers and held meetings with them to discuss their concerns about the former Secretary. The parliamentary branch of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) also lodged an official complaint against Mgidlana with the Presiding Officers regarding claims of his hostile relations with staff, which led to a strike at the end of 2015.
The issues they had raised were eventually exposed in newspaper reports that claimed Mgidlana had, among other things, run up travel expenses amounting to about R4-million, improperly granted himself a study bursary and an ex-gratia bonus payment of R71‚000 after just two months in his position and ordered parliamentary protection staff to chauffeur himself and members of his family in PPS vehicles, using official blue light cars.
Mokgatla said he and Holtzman had challenged his use of using flashing blue lights, breaking the speed limit and racing through red traffic lights. They held meetings with him to raise their concerns, and suggested that he apply through the official channels for the creation of a post for a driver-cum-security officer, although this had never come up in the past or been requested by previous Secretaries to Parliament.
Mokgatla recalled that they also suggested that Mgidlana make use of the vehicles and drivers in the Household Services division who were mandated to provide transport to staff under certain conditions.
This did not end well. Mokgatla said the former Secretary to Parliament took one look at the car supplied. “It was a Jetta or a Golf, and [he] asked where was the car, you can’t expect me to drive in that small car.” Mgidlana then told the driver to get his home address from his PA, fetch his own Rover from his house and come back to fetch him before returning the car to the government garage.
Among the allegations made by Mokgatla was the claim that when his use of the blue lights was exposed in the media, the former Secretary had called in a service provider to remove them.
“I said no, that cannot happen because the cars might be under investigation for abuse so if you remove [the blue lights] you will be tampering with possible evidence into the abuse of these cars,” Mokgatla said, adding that Mgidlana went ahead anyway and had the blue lights removed. This has been confirmed by an additional source.
Efforts to confirm or deny this claim and other comments by Mokgatla were emailed to Mgidlana through his legal team, Zarina Abdurahman and Kevin Kiewitz, but no response had been received by the requested deadline.
“The Presiding Officers are wholly responsible because they are supposed to oversee the Secretary to Parliament. His abuse of his powers was brought to their knowledge and they did absolutely nothing. We told them on a number of occasions about how Secretary conducts himself to us and they were conspicuously silent,” said Mokgatla.
All attempts to get a response to his criticism of the Presiding Officers from the parliamentary spokesperson were also unsuccessful.
Mokgatla believes the Presiding Officers continued to support the former Secretary until pressure from the union and staff had built up to a point where they had to act, and called in Parliament’s internal Audit Committee to investigate in July 2017.
After a five-month Audit Committee investigation, Parliament announced that Mgidlana would be suspended and face disciplinary proceedings over charges of maladministration and abuse of power.
Meanwhile, Parliament’s dispute with Holtzman had developed into a full-scale disciplinary process and towards the end of 2017 she was dismissed. She faced 14 charges and was found guilty on three counts – insubordination, failure to address divisions among her staff and failure to develop a business plan – and a final written warning was issued for a fourth charge.
Holtzman challenged her dismissal at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and the case dragged on until May 2018 when she was cleared of all charges. Parliament agreed to a payment of eight months’ salary and she in turn withdrew her CCMA complaint. She is due to take up a university post soon.
Mokgatla, however, whose contract had expired leaving him with no opportunity to present his case to a disciplinary hearing, said he lost his job with what he described as a shadow hanging over him. The allegations levelled against him were among the same charges that Holtzman had been cleared of.
This was confirmed by Holtzman: “I challenged the charges brought against me successfully, and Mokgatla, who was charged with some, not all, of these charges, should therefore also be exonerated.”
She went on to praise Mokgatla for his stand against what both had considered to be unacceptable practices by the former Secretary, saying Mokgatla “had the courage to stand up for truth and justice at great risk to himself. He took a position of principle.
“It’s a great loss to Parliament who would do well to take him back, not only to make reparation for the harm and damage this has caused him, but also to regain his expertise.”
Parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo commented: “Mr Mokgatla is no longer a staff member of Parliament as his contract expired a while ago. We are neither able to offer an opinion on the views of former staff members nor comment on the ongoing disciplinary process pertaining to the Secretary to Parliament, lest its integrity is undermined. If he petitioned the standing committee on financial management of parliament, he may have done so as a member of the public, and the co-chairpersons would be better positioned to respond.”
One of the committee co-chairpersons, Vincent Smith, acknowledged that he had received a called from Mokgatla raising this matter and said generally the committee did not involve itself with matters of labour or disciplinary procedures. He confirmed, however, that the committee had received a similar letter from another employee who had been suspended by Mgidlana and whose contract had been allowed to run out before a disciplinary hearing could be held.
“We have suggested to all who have approached the committee to exhaust all HR/internal labour practice avenues at the disposal of employees,” he said, adding that a comprehensive response from the committee is being prepared in response to Mokgatla’s appeal.
In the meantime, Mokgatla remains unemployed at his Bloemfontein home, his career in security – that saw him climb the ranks of uMkhonto weSizwe during years of exile spent mostly in Angola and Zambia – abruptly halted. DM
Disclosure: Moira Levy is a former employee of Parliament.
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