SA Govt’s Directors-General: Perpetual tensions, loss of institutional memory, (often) crashing uncertainty
Two suspended directors-general, one in a mediation and at least six acting DGs. And as this snapshot of service delivery departments shows, around half of the top departmental officials managing billions of rands alongside policy-making and implementation are director-general newbies appointed since 2020.
Finding information on South Africa’s top public service echelon is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. Few departmental websites give proper biographies of directors-general (DGs), and even those that have some details mostly summarise this into “more than 20 years in public service with 10 at senior management level”, or such.
The Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) has produced a telephone directory that, while it’s comprehensive — if landline numbers are still a thing — is also passé in places. An up-to-date government information site with all accounting officers’ profiles, including a work track record and qualifications, may yet materialise — alongside a DG’s precise annual salary package, given the range from R1.5-million to just over R2-million.
But what has emerged is cause for thought — particularly given the much talked about the professionalisation of the public service and the stability in interaction between the accounting officer, the DG who runs the department, and the politician, the minister, in the “political-administrative interface”, as the government jargon goes at least since the 2012 National Development Plan.
But, for example, only seven of the permanently appointed DGs have served more than one five-year contract: Labour (from 2014), Basic Education and Tourism (from 2015), Human Settlements (from 2016), Traditional Affairs (from 2018) and Science and Innovation (from 2006). It’s all a bit fudgy, however, as some DGs got the permanent appointment after acting for, sometimes, many months, while at least one DG is now acting after having served two five-year contracts.
Here’s a rundown, with some background that signals some departments (and ministerial egos) seem more trouble-prone than others.
Kgathatso Tlhakudi was suspended as DG on 24 June 2022, just short of two years into his permanent appointment from July 2020, having served in an acting capacity since October 2018.
In October 2018, Richard Seleke resigned following a settlement reportedly worth R3-million, after a stalemate with Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan over links with the controversial Gupta family while Seleke was at Transnet.
Tlhakudi had been deputy DG for manufacturing enterprises in the department, but also was Armscor head of aircraft systems acquisition until November 2012 and worked at Denel.
In a highly unusual move, President Cyril Ramaphosa delegated the matter to Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, who put the DG on precautionary suspension. Usually, it’s the responsibility of Public Service and Administration.
But the precedent was set in 2021 when the President put Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi in charge of the disciplinary dispute involving Higher Education DG Gwebinkundla Qonde over the Auditor-General’s disclaimer of the National Skills Fund. He was suspended on 23 July 2021, and while a forensic probe was pending, Qonde’s contract expired in early September 2021.
Asked for comment on the Tlhakudi suspension, the Presidency declined to comment.
“The matter is still being addressed between employer and employee,” said presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya in a text message.
Justice declined to comment on employer-employee matters while disciplinary proceedings are under way. Public Enterprises, in announcing the DG’s suspension in a statement, said it would not comment further, referring “all further communication on this matter” to Justice. Tlhakudi did not respond when phoned and texted.
Sam Vukela has been on suspension since 9 July 2020 after a forensic report linked him to financial malfeasance in three state funerals, including that of struggle stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Vukela had returned as DG in late 2017 after successfully challenging his 2013 sacking over the police Pretoria HQ dealings with property mogul Roux Shabangu, following a Public Protector report that in June 2012 also cost Bheki Cele his SAPS national police commissioner job.
He escaped prosecution in connection with the Nkandla scandal unfolding on the watch of him and two other DGs — on 28 July 2015, the National Prosecuting Authority declined to prosecute, according to a parliamentary reply from then police minister Nathi Nhleko.
In early 2020 it emerged before Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) how Vukela’s name had been redacted from the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report into the R76-million funeral irregularities — and that it took forever for the report to reach Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille.
Read in Daily Maverick: The better, ugly and very ugly: Good news from NPA; bad and terrible news from Public Works
Although De Lille had suspended Vukela, in September that year Ramaphosa stepped in to remove the power to discipline the official as DG matters fell to the Presidency. The suspension continued to be challenged in early 2022. Acting DG Alec Moemi is the second interim incumbent to head the department.
DG Mbulelo Tshangana, currently into his second term as DG following his first five-year term from March 2016, stands at loggerheads with the minister, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.
Read in Daily Maverick: With a minister and her DG at odds, nine public servants are falling through the cracks
Suspended by the minister in early June, he stayed on because only the President could suspend him. That hasn’t yet happened, although a Presidency-initiated mediation did. The outcome? Preferably, Tshangana should be referred to another DG’s post or one of similar status. The other option would be for presidential monitoring for no more than five months.
Tshangana is one of the few public service accounting officers with both DG experience and subject expertise, having served previously as Western Cape head of the housing department before being hired as a deputy DG three housing ministers ago.
Acting DG, Treasury veteran Ismail Momoniat, was appointed the day after the previous incumbent, Dondo Mogajane, left when his contract expired in June. Having joined National Treasury in 1999, he is one of the longest-serving public servants and was appointed DG in 2017.
While the finance ministry issued a statement welcoming the acting DG — applications closed on 14 June and “the selection process is currently underway”, National Treasury said in an email response for comment — no official public word was released on Mogajane’s departure after 23 years in the Treasury. This signals that the powers that be were scunnered.
For a government that’s sharply focused on niceties and protocol, not issuing a statement is extremely unusual.
Science and Innovation
Veteran DG Phil Mjwara has been in the post since April 2006, making him the longest-serving director-general, and also one with subject expertise. In November 2020, Cabinet approved another two-year DG contract.
Before accepting the DG post he was at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research as group executive for research and development, strategic human capital development. In 2001 he joined the National Laser Centre, according to the official biography. Mjwara serves on several advisory councils, including the World of Platinum of South Africa and the Square Kilometre Array Organisation.
Mineral Resources and Energy
The most recently appointed DG, Jacob Mbele, has been in the post from 10 June 2022. His predecessor, Thabo Mokoena, left in March after the expiry of his five-year contract, signed while Mosebenzi Zwane was the minister. The State Capture commission made damning findings against ex-Free State MEC Zwane, whom then president Jacob Zuma appointed to Cabinet.
Mbele previously served as deputy director-general for programmes and projects at the department, and also chief director for electricity when Energy was a separate department. He has engineering degrees and a Master’s degree in Business Administration.
DG Phindile Baleni has headed the Presidency since late March 2021, taking over from Cassius Lubisi who had held that post for a decade.
A veteran public servant who since 2015 headed the Gauteng Office of the Premier, Baleni joined the Gauteng housing MEC as legal adviser in 1994. In 1996 Baleni was at the City of Johannesburg, responsible for strategic planning, project management and local government policy development. From April 2011, she served a four-year stint as CEO of the National Energy Regulator of South Africa.
The Presidency in June said security services are investigating threats against Baleni after a letter and bullet were found at her home.
Water and Sanitation
Sean Phillips, a civil engineer, was appointed DG in early January 2022 after serving as DG for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency where he also played a motivating force for Operation Vulindlela, the joint initiative between National Treasury and the Presidency, to accelerate structural reforms for economic growth.
His 20-year public service from national to local government level also includes a stint as chief operations officer at Public Works and heading various government entities, including the Johannesburg Roads Agency and the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agency.
Sandile Buthelezi was appointed DG in July 2020 by then health minister Zweli Mkhize; both share a health background from KwaZulu-Natal. A little over a year later the minister resigned under the cloud of the Digital Vibes Covid-19 communications tender scandal just ahead of the 5 August Cabinet reshuffle.
Buthelezi was suspended in late August 2021 for about three months pending investigations of this scandal. He returned to office in November 2021.
Acting DG Linton Mchunu has been holding the fort for a while in a portfolio that’s seen its share of top officials in the past decade.
In September 2012, Vusi Madonsela was moved to Cooperative Governance — then to Justice from May 2016. His successor, Coceko Pakade, left in 2015 and the DG post was held by at least two acting incumbents while Bathabile Dlamini, who was appointed minister in 2010, remained in charge of the portfolio.
In November 2016, Zane Dangor was appointed permanent DG. He had been ministerial adviser since 2010, and departmental operations officer before that.
By March 2017, Dangor resigned over the Cash Paymaster Services grant payment crisis, the consequences of which played out recently when Dlamini was found guilty in March 2022 of perjury in the Constitutional Court-established inquiry into the grant payment crisis.
Following his resignation, Dangor faced harassment, threats and intimidation that also targeted his family.
Dangor returned to government as DG for International Relations in April 2022.
Advocate Doctor Mashabane was appointed DG from February 2021 from the Africa Commission on Nuclear Energy, according to the department’s website. He also served as South Africa’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations for four years to 2015.
He turned to diplomatic affairs after a stint from 2002 in the constitutional development section of the Justice Department. That gives him 15 years of public service experience.
DG Tommy Makhode served a stint in an acting capacity before his permanent appointment to the post was announced in October 2020.
After resigning in 2018 as deputy DG, he moved sideways to Science and Technology as a deputy director-general before returning to Home Affairs.
The department has seen a number of changes and acting stints since July 2018 when Mkuseli Apleni resigned after eight years as DG — but not before successfully challenging his suspension by minister Hlengiwe Mkhize in the Pretoria High Court, and thus entrenching the principle that only the president can suspend DGs.
Trade, Industry and Competition
Acting DG Malebo Mabitjie-Thompson has been leading the department since mid-2021. A deputy director-general in the department since 2014, he has also served on trade and industry-related entities like the SEZ Advisory Board on special economic zones.
Veteran public servant Lionel October, who had spent 10 of his 20 years in the public service as DG, left at the end of April 2021. He moved to head the SEZ Unit at the Industrial Development Corporation. When minister Ebrahim Patel headed economic development, that department had a revolving door of top and senior managers.
Communications and Digital Technologies
Acting DG since January 2021 is Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani, a former deputy DG who came through the ranks at the former telecommunications and postal services department.
Small Business Development
Lindokuhle Mkhumane was appointed permanent DG from May 2021, after having acted in the post since October 2018. Before that, he was deputy DG for enterprise development and entrepreneurship, a post he was appointed to in June 2018, according to the official departmental website. His previous public service includes four years at Trade and Industry, and in the City of Johannesburg.
Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation
From July 2020, DG Robert Nkuna moved into this department that is part of the Presidency, from heading Telecommunications and Postal Services for the previous four years.
In November 2016, Cabinet appointed him to that department while he was serving as councillor at the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).
The previous telecommunications DG, Rosey Sekese, ultimately left after being suspended in August 2015, just four years after her appointment, pending a probe into departmental dysfunction.
Nkuna’s public service also includes stints as ministerial adviser in telecommunications, transport and energy.
Labour and Employment
DG Thobile Lamati has headed the department since December 2014 after serving as deputy DG with various responsibilities. He had joined Labour in 1998 as an inspector before moving to Public Works and then returning to Labour. This makes Lamati one of the few DGs not only with a public service track record — and more than one term as DG — but also one with subject expertise.
Deputy DG for rail regulatory framework, infrastructure and planning, Ngwako Makaepea, has been acting DG for a few months. This is after Alec Moemi, who was appointed DG in June 2019 after the death of long-standing public servant and DG Pule Selepe, was appointed to head Public Works in an acting capacity.
Moemi came to Transport from Sport, where in 2011 he was appointed DG.
His sideways move in April 2022 came after some public disagreements between previously acting DG Imtiaz Fazel and the Public Works minister Patricia de Lille. The DA and United Democratic Movement (UDM) in Parliament have described the move as an appointment through the back door, but the minister has dismissed this.
Public Works needs an acting DG because incumbent Sam Vukela is on suspension.
Public Service and Administration
DG Yoliswa Makhasi is in a portfolio that has seen three ministers since her appointment in March 2020 — Senzo Mchunu, now water and sanitation, Ayandla Dlodlo, now a World Bank executive, and the current acting minister Thulas Nxesi, who heads labour.
Her public service experience includes a stint as Public Enterprises deputy director-general for corporate services more than a decade ago to, most recently, heading Gauteng community safety.
Makhasi has faced union agitation, including a petition with claims of abuse of power and nepotism delivered to Dlodlo in October 2021.
On Wednesday, the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union welcomed the dropping of the “bogus, frivolous and spurious” charges the DG Makhasi brought against its shop steward Rhulane Manganye, “or defending and guarding the gains of collective bargaining and interest of our members and workers”, according to the union’s public statement.
DG Avril Williamson was appointed in April 2020. She “has been in the field of Human Resources for the past 27 years. Her experience emanates from working in diverse industries including Manufacturing, ICT, Telecommunications, Public and Higher Education Sectors, where she held Senior and Executive Director roles in large corporates…” according to the departmental website.
While Mashwahle Diphofa was appointed from February 2018, it was a sideways move from Cooperative Governance after clashes with then minister Faith Muthambi, who subsequently faced a parliamentary grilling on nepotism.
Diphofa, who had been on extended leave, had expected to return to his Cogta post in November 2017. But interventions from the Presidency meant he moved to Traditional Affairs, where in November 2018 Cabinet approved another five-year contract for him. This makes him one of the longest-serving DGs, with a previous stint as Public Service and Administration DG from November 2011 to January 2018 under his belt, alongside a year or so as DG for the Office of Public Service Commission.
Hubert Mweli has been in his DG seat since August 2015. That means he’s now serving a second five-year contract with the same minister.
Coincidentally, Mweli also has an education background, making the switch from teaching to heading the North West education department, which makes him among the limited number of DGs with subject expertise matching their portfolio.
Higher Education and Training
DG Nkosinathi Sishi was appointed from November 2021, the announcement coming just a few weeks after the contract of his suspended predecessor expired.
Sishi rejoined Higher Education, where in 2016 he was a deputy DG, from heading the Transport Department’s Driving Licence Card Account Trading Entity.
According to the official ministerial announcement, he “has 35 years’ experience in the different spheres of Government and at State-Owned Enterprises, including the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa…”
In August 2019 Daily Maverick reported on how at Prasa, the recently seconded Sishi facilitated an agreement that would have allowed the Development Bank of Southern Africa to extract management fees for proposing and developing infrastructure projects for the rail agency.
Read in Daily Maverick: New Prasa boss on verge of signing a murky multibillion-rand deal
The State Capture commission report has recommended a separate inquiry into the state of Prasa.
Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment
DG Nomfundo Tshabalala has been heading the department since December 2020, about five months after the previous incumbent retired.
She joined from Gauteng Treasury, which she headed from 2006 after joining as chief director of the Gauteng Department of Finance and Economic Affairs. Her career started in the Swaziland government’s finance department where “she focused on development finance and the implementation and monitoring of internationally funded projects”, according to the ministerial statement announcing the appointment.
Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development
Appointed DG from December 2021, Mooketsa Ramasodi had been acting in that position since October 2020 when the previous incumbent’s contract expired. Before that, Ramasodi was DDG for agricultural production, health and food safety.
He is one of the rare DGs with not only a public service career, but also subject expertise. His appointment was welcomed by the agricultural sector as a known person.
DG Victor Tharage is two years into his second five-year contract as accounting officer, having first been appointed DG from September 2015. Before that, he was deputy DG for policy and knowledge.
He worked in the Environmental Affairs and Tourism department in 2001 as “operations manager in the national policy unit for World Summit for Sustainable Development” and Statistics SA, according to a biography published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development November 2021 Global Forum on Tourism Statistics, Knowledge and Policies.
Tharage is currently working for his third minister, with Derek Hanekom having served two stints at Tourism.
Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities
DG Mikateko Joyce Maluleke is an advocate who was appointed to head this department from August 2020. She is a long-standing gender and justice activist who was a special ministerial adviser from July 2013 to January 2017 and served as a member of the Employment Equity Commission.
From April 1998 to October 2011, Maluleke was a state law adviser in the Justice Department. On her appointment, former Public Protector, now academic, Thuli Madonsela tweeted, “It’s a joy to witness an exact match between competence and position requirements. Blessings on the journey ahead”.
Arts, Culture and Sports
Vusumuzi Sunrise Mkhize was appointed DG by Cabinet in August 2017. But he moved from Home Affairs where he was a deputy DG alongside other senior officials who were under a cloud in relation to the Gupta naturalisation saga.
And while Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told MPs in September 2021 that he had written about this to his Cabinet colleague Nathi Mthethwa — “You don’t escape disciplinary proceedings by going to different departments” — it’s unclear what, if anything, has happened.
Read in Daily Maverick: Home Affairs: The long and winding road to holding public service officials accountable
DG Irene Mpolweni was appointed in June 2021. Much of her background is in provincial administrations such as the North West Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation Department (2007 and 2010) and, more recently as head of the Eastern Cape Transport Department.
Politicking and acrimony meant transport MEC Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe cut her contract short by a month in October 2019, reported The Daily Dispatch: Bhisho accounting officer Mpolweni to step down early
Acting DG Makgothi Thobakgale has been in the post since the contract of Arthur Fraser expired in September 2021. That’s just about a year since getting his rank insignia as chief deputy commissioner: incarceration and corrections after he joined Correctional Services on 1 August 2020 from Public Works. There, his last post was deputy DG for small harbours and state coastal properties development.
The clock is ticking. Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola said in a recent parliamentary reply to IFP MP Themba Msimang: “A four months recruitment plan is in place and it is envisaged that a permanent National Commissioner will be appointed no later than 31 July 2022.”
The DG post is the Secretary for Defence, held since August 2020 by Sonto Kudjoe who has worked in intelligence and as an ambassador and senior International Relations official.
For two years from 1998 she was Africa research and analysis manager at the South African Secret Service, then the foreign intelligence division, before joining International Relations (then called Foreign Affairs) as a chief director.
After four years as ambassador, Kudjoe returned to International Relations as a deputy DG. In August 2013 she became the first woman State Security Agency DG until 2016. After a brief stint in the defence armaments private sector, Kudjoe returned to government in her current post.
The SAPS national commissioner is the accounting officer, or DG.
Lieutenant-General Fannie Masemola was appointed from April 2022. This was after his predecessor Khehla Sitole agreed with President Ramaphosa on the early termination of his contract “in the best interest of the country” after months of acrimonious tensions, sometimes in public, with Police Minister Bheki Cele.
A deputy national SAPS commissioner at the time of his appointment, Masemola has served in various SAPS divisions, including Crime Intelligence, and between 2013 to 2016 as provincial police commissioner for Limpopo.
He takes over as the SAPS has been wracked by politicisation, financial malfeasance and an inability to ensure ordinary South Africans feel safe and secure, in line with constitutional imperatives. As public opinion surveys repeatedly identify police as being perceived to be most corrupt, the crime situation has deteriorated and murders have increased.
The constitutionally established Civilian Secretariat for Police is headed by an acting Secretary for Police, Takalani Ramaru. His predecessor, Alvin Rapea, joined Regenesys Business School from February 2022.
Thembi Majola was appointed as DG for three years from March 2022 by Ramaphosa. Previously she was deputy energy minister from 2014 to her 2018 resignation and before that ambassador to, among other countries, Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia and Guinea Bissau.
The appointment comes about six months after Ramaphosa moved the controversy-wracked State Security and its agency, SSA, into the Presidency, rather than retaining it as the standalone ministry it has been since 1999 when then president Thabo Mbeki moved the portfolio held by a deputy minister from Justice.
The State Capture commission report was scathing about intelligence services — from politicisation and ineffectiveness to financial malfeasance.
(NOTE: Some departmental entities have not been included in this snapshot because it focuses on service delivery and policy implementation departments. The Public Service Commission, National School of Government, Government Printing Works, Government Communication and Information System, Government Pension Administration Agency and Statistics South Africa are overwhelmingly government-focused. The South African Revenue Service stands statutorily independent as does the Office of the Chief Justice, while the Independent Police Investigative Directorate is the police watchdog.) DM