One of the biggest dilemmas, from inside the world of politics, is deciding whether, when and how to respond to attacks based on false information.
Should one just ignore them? Or is it essential to set the record straight?
As in most things political, there is no stock answer. It depends on the circumstances of each situation.
Ignoring falsehoods may allow them to disappear from the news cycle for a while, but the “record” remains and can resurface in unimaginable ways at any time, especially in the internet age. I tend, therefore, to err on the side of setting the record straight (despite my stoical late father’s advice: “Never complain, never explain!”)
Dad was a businessman and never understood why this maxim fell short in politics. He hadn’t worked in terrain where, as Winston Churchill noted, “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.
In today’s “post-truth” era, social media regard facts as irrelevant. They have, sadly, become platforms of distortion and deception that enable lies to circumnavigate the globe several times before truth’s alarm clock even rings.
It is with this in mind that I write my column today. The issue at stake is headed for the High Court, which makes it even more important that I address the falsehoods, presented as fact, in Cameron Dugmore’s response to my analysis of the latest Public Protector report which found that I had breached the Executive Ethics Act by exposing myself to a “risk” of a potential conflict of interest.
Cameron Dugmore is an ANC member of the Provincial Legislature who is aiming to succeed me as Premier in the forthcoming election. He has been driving his complaint against me with the Public Protector since mid-2017. The Public Protector eventually issued a report in December 2018, finding that I exposed myself to the risk of a potential conflict of interest in circumstances I describe below.
It is important to note that the Public Protector did NOT find an actual conflict of interest. She certainly found no hint of corruption (despite what the Twitterati may say). She found I had exposed myself to the risk of a conflict, even if it never actually materialised, or even existed.
In politics, almost everything one says or does entails risk, primarily because one’s opponents are always actively looking for any opportunity to distort facts, and decontextualise statements, in order to create whatever negative perceptions they can. Cameron Dugmore’s complaint (and subsequent article) is a classic case in point.
From the start of this saga he has been trying to create a perception that there was a conflict of interests between my role as the Premier and my son’s role as a mathematics teacher — and then claimed that I had exposed myself to the risk of such a perception arising. Catch-22.
It is like deliberately creating an optical illusion and then claiming there was a risk that people might actually believe what you tried hard to make them see.
Dugmore, for his part, says he was acting on information provided by whistle-blowers from the Western Cape Education Department who came forward in 2017 to complain about an alleged risk of a conflict of interest they claim occurred three years earlier, in late 2014.
So, even before going into the details of the complaint, the first question that arises is: Why did the “whistle-blowers” wait three years to come forward? Dugmore claims they did so because it was only in 2017 that they “feared” the WCED might procure resources to benefit, above others, a small company in which my son is a partner.
My simple question is this: How is it possible that the “fear” of something that never actually happened could provide an acceptable basis for laying a complaint in the first place?
And when the “fear” did not materialise, why did Dugmore then work back in time, to 2014, until he found a situation around which he could create a perception that I had exposed myself to a “risk” of a potential conflict of interests relating to my son’s company (that did not even exist at the time)?
If this sounds bizarre, it is. It shows the lengths your political opponents will go to in order to discredit you, especially when they can use, as a conduit, someone who happens to be campaigning to become Premier.
While we all accept that whistle-blowers are essential in a democratic system, very few people anticipated the extent to which the Protected Disclosures Act would create opportunities for political abuse by agenda-driven individuals.
According to Dugmore, the whistle-blowers used him as a conduit to make the entirely false allegation (in a complaint to the Public Protector) that I had violated the Ethics Code, back in 2014, by forcing an emergency procurement of tablets for delivery to, and use by, a “company” owned by my son.
I had done no such thing. Without a single shred of evidence to support this absurd allegation, the Public Protector nevertheless refused to absolve me of any wrongdoing.
Instead, she went back to Dugmore to give him the opportunity to adjust his complaint.
The reason I know this happened is that the Public Protector wrote to me saying her office had been in renewed discussions with Dugmore and that she now had new questions to pose to me. These questions, in fact, amounted to a completely new complaint.
The conclusion is ineluctable that the Public Protector had given Dugmore another chance to reformulate his complaint to discredit me.
Dugmore denies this. But he fails to give any other coherent explanation as to why the Public Protector formulated a new complaint after her office consulted him, when he and his “whistle-blowers” had failed to provide any evidence of the original one. Until Dugmore provides a credible alternative, my conclusion stands.
The Public Protector eventually found that I had exposed myself to the “risk” of a potential of conflict of interest back in 2014 by supporting the early delivery (by 10 days) of tablets ordered for a range of e-Learning programmes, so that my son, who was a government-employed teacher working in Khayelitsha at that time (and had no role in any company) could volunteer his time over the October holidays to give free matric revision classes to disadvantaged learners.
I am pleased that Dugmore agrees with Education Minister Angie Motshekga that there “should not be discrimination against a person with a contribution to make simply because they are related to the political principal”.
As he notes: “They must be given a fair chance. But there should be no favouritism and unfair advantage which there was in this case.”
What is the basis for this erroneous conclusion?
It is important to set out the facts that the available evidence actually supports in order to realise the extent of the distortion and misrepresentation involved.
The details are also relevant because they reveal the extent to which essential mechanisms of accountability — such as the Public Protector — can be abused.
I summarise below:
In 2013 The Western Cape Government had embarked on an after-school programme to create, as the founding document states, a “partnership between the Western Cape Government and numerous NGOs and social enterprises aimed at improving educational outcomes and encouraging a culture of volunteerism”. One of its key components was e-Learning.
The NGOs, enterprises and individuals chosen to participate were not identified through a formal procurement process. An official merely undertook a “scoping exercise” which listed various organisations (both NGOs and enterprises) working in the field, and offered them the opportunity of providing their programmes in selected schools after school hours.
This approach was intended to be inclusive and open to organisations, initiatives or enterprises with a worthwhile e-Learning contribution to make. So when other organisations contacted me, after the initial “scoping exercise” saying they had been overlooked, I immediately sought to include them.
The programme started with a pilot project in 2014, for which we needed to procure computer tablets. By mid-2014 there had been no progress because the Department of Education did not have the required budget. So the Department of the Premier transferred funds to the WCED to enable them to buy tablets, both for the pilot programme in 2014 (150 tablets) and the roll-out of the full programme in 2015 (480 tablets).
Because of the delay in funding and procurement, the e-Learning component was only going to commence at the start of the fourth term of 2014 — significantly later than we would have wanted.
Back then, my son was an enthusiastic maths teacher in Khayelitsha working on technology platforms together with another (former) Khayelitsha maths teacher. Their aim was to give all children, irrespective of their circumstances, access to quality mathematics teaching.
They had managed to complete a matric revision programme on their platform by the third term of 2014, and wanted to offer workshops between 6 and 10 October 2014, shortly before the start of the fourth term. They had intended to use the existing technology platforms in these schools, but during the preparation phase, they found that these were inadequate for the purpose.
They were about to cancel the workshops when my son happened to mention this to me. I then reported this to the Director General (DG) in one of my weekly meetings, where I routinely raise a full list of issues and problems. It was, in any event, crucial for him to know that our much vaunted e-Learning platforms were unable to support basic educational programmes.
The DG then reminded me of the tablets, procured precisely for the purpose of after-school e-Learning programmes. They were due to be delivered at the start of the fourth term. I asked whether they might be available at the end of the third term, before the short holiday, and he offered to inquire. He returned saying that, indeed, 150 tablets had been properly procured and could be made available.
My son then borrowed some of the tablets from the department (his employer) and returned them in mint condition by the agreed date so that they were ready to use by other enterprises and organisations at the start of the fourth term.
(As fate and irony would have it, the use of the tablets was limited in the workshops, as the connectivity at the schools was insufficient to sustain the number of simultaneous linkages required.)
The above facts, as they say in court, are “common cause”. Everyone agrees they are true. Yet Dugmore, claimed that my son’s use of the tablets to give three free workshops during the school holidays, a few days before others used them, gave him an unfair advantage.
Over whom, I wonder? He was not competing with the other service providers. He was trying to help the students. It was not as if he was given a head-start in a race to a finish line. He was offering a free programme to help disadvantaged students prepare for the matric exams at a time when every single day of revision counts.
I was, of course, aware that this situation might create the “risk” of a perceived conflict of interests, especially as my political opponents are always looking for a reason to manufacture outrage, so I wrote a letter to the DG, copied to various others, stressing that “these tablets should be available for use by ALL service providers who provide FREE services to students in the run-up to the examinations till the end of the year (not necessarily only matrics)”.
Dugmore dismisses this email as meaningless, saying it was by then too late for others to take advantage of the opportunity.
Not so. There was a cohort of enterprises waiting to introduce their e-Learning programmes (without having been through any procurement process) at the start of the fourth term.
These organisations had already worked together with the department for the whole year. They were all geared up, and would easily have been able to start 10 days earlier if they were prepared to organise workshops during school holidays.
Instead of conferring with Cameron Dugmore, maybe his “whistle-blowers” should have ensured that these enterprises took advantage of the opportunity I opened through my email.
But Dugmore’s argument (and the Public Protector’s conclusion) that I abused my position and exposed myself to a “risk” of a conflict of interests, stands or falls by the claim that my son was a partner in a company in 2014, when he offered to hold the workshops. In fact, Dugmore categorically states that he was — despite documentary evidence to the contrary.
In 2014, my son was an ordinary mathematics teacher in Khayelitsha and had no role in any company whatsoever.
Dugmore supports his false claim by an even more serious falsehood — His article includes a carefully edited quotation from the website of the social enterprise my son and his colleague subsequently set up (in 2015).
Purporting to reproduce a direct quote from this website, Dugmore writes “Paper Video is ‘an edtech social enterprise founded in June 2014 with an audacious goal: the creation and distribution of quality educational resources that allow every student in South Africa to gain instant access to excellent teachers’ (from website papervideo.co.za (http://papervideo.co.za)”.
There is a similar sentence on the website but it differs in one crucial respect. It does not include the words “founded in June 2014”. This phrase is Dugmore’s insertion, spliced into a direct quote, to generate the perception of a risk of a conflict of interest and abuse of power on which the Public Protector’s finding is based.
This is not minor semantics. It is a crucial issue, and shows just how far one’s opponents are prepared to go, to send a lie around the world before the truth has had a chance to wake up to any risk.
At another point, the website does indeed mention the date June 2014, but in an entirely different context. It notes that the two maths teachers started their joint technology “initiative” at that time. An initiative is not a company, and this is not a semantic difference either.
According to the Oxford dictionary an initiative, used in this context, means “an act or strategy intended to resolve a difficulty or improve a situation; a fresh approach to something”.
That precisely describes what the two maths teachers were trying to do, and it happened to dovetail perfectly with the Western Cape government’s e-Learning strategy.
As Dugmore concedes, there was no rational reason at all that a mathematics teacher with a penchant for technology should be excluded simply because of a biological relationship with a politician.
Unless, of course, your political opponents are determined to create perceptions about non-existent “risks” that they can then present to a compliant Public Protector to generate a politically useful finding of violation of the Executive Ethics Code.
Dugmore further says that when, eventually, my son and his colleague started a small company (which happened in 2015), they had an unfair advantage by having been allowed to use tablets (many of which didn’t actually work) for three workshops in 2014.
This is patently absurd. But in any event, every enterprise and NGO that used the tablets after him had an even greater “advantage” because they had a whole school term, rather than a short holiday, to use their platforms, in a context where the tablets were actually functional!
In addition, offering this advantage was a stated intention of the after-school programme. The founding document records that:
“The key benefit for these [e-Learning] partners will be the opportunity to mainstream their work within schools and to scale their work.”
Given this intentional incentive, openly offered to partners to become involved in the e-Learning programmes, it is interesting that Dugmore uses this point as the basis of an allegation of impropriety against me. It makes no sense whatsoever.
These are the facts. They will be tested in court. In the meantime, Dugmore has achieved his purpose because the baton of lies continues to be passed from person to person in a never-ending social-media relay.
The truth is still donning its spikes. But they are sharp.
And, as the old saying goes, even in an age of social media, Truth Will Out. DM