Opinionista Marianne Merten 11 October 2019

Whitewash: Absolving senior officials over ‘protest suicide’ does Parliament no favours

There are moments in which institutions define themselves. This week Parliament came down in favour of the powerful and on the side of palace intrigue.

It was one of those institution-defining moments in the Old Assembly Chamber on Wednesday afternoon, 9 October 2019.

One year and 26 days after senior parliamentary manager Lennox Garane committed suicide in protest against workplace bullying — and some six months after the finalisation of an independent inquiry and report — Parliament’s presiding officers were ready to brief the national legislature’s oversight committee.

There had been a little delay from September, after the Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament decided the presiding officers needed to take this report to the Garane family, who had requested it. This was done and permission was obtained from the family to release the report.

The family is of the view that Parliament may use the report or any aspect of its contents anyhow it deems fit in execution of its constitutional responsibility,” wrote Sithembile Garane to the committee.

We trust that Parliament would use the PSC (Public Service Commission) report to improve its environment for all its stakeholders. My father’s actions should be an ordeal worth all the effort to prevent for an august institution like Parliament.”

This had been the attitude and approach from the Garane family throughout the past 13 months — openness and courage, despite the loss of their father, brother and husband on 14 September 2018. Right from the beginning the family honoured Garane by not hiding why he killed himself — the suicide note left in his office was headed “Protest Suicide”, as was his funeral notice.

But on Wednesday, Parliament’s presiding officers presented a whitewash, and when confronted about this by opposition parties, backtracked into sophistry.

The PSC probe’s recommendations included an assessment of the fitness and proficiency to hold leadership and management positions of acting Secretary to Parliament Baby Tyawa, former acting Deputy Secretary to Parliament Modibedi Phindela, who is the Secretary to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), and International Relations and Protocol Division Manager Dumisani Sithole, an ex-ANC MP. Their assessments should also include their people management skills. And if found wanting, there must be education and awareness training.

Sithole, Phindela and Tyawa, in increasing seniority, were Garane’s bosses, to whom he had turned with his work grievances that the PSC now has found to be valid, legitimate and sustained. Sithole did little, if anything. Phindela said it’s “a political environment”, the PSC found, while Tyawa responded that Garane “should take the matter to the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration)”.

But NCOP chairperson Amos Masondo announced the presiding officer’s decision:

Ms Tyawa cannot be faulted in the manner in which she handled the grievances of Mr Garane… advocate Phindela cannot be faulted for the manner in which he handled the grievances of Mr Garane.”

The fall guy, so to speak, would be Sithole, who would face disciplinary proceedings. The PSC found his unilateral moving of Garane to another job had violated due process.

Coincidentally, the PSC report took a dim view of Phindela’s responses to its investigation and described as “repulsive” Tyawa’s move to finger Garane’s family in her response, which the commission slated as “callous, arrogant and insensitive” and in poor taste.

On Wednesday when DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen asked for details about how and when Tyawa and Phindela had been “absolved” by the presiding officers, and why only them and not Sithole, Masondo provided no details, simply saying “there’s no cherry-picking”.

Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli went on a muddled tangent of how the PSC recommendations were not binding and the presiding officers were bound by fairness and due process.

Let’s look at those recommendations as recommendations. If we vary them for whatever reason, we will account for varying them. We understand the dynamics in the institution…”

But exactly what dynamics and what understanding Tsenoli may be thinking of while touting Parliament’s process to reshape and restructure itself remains unclear.

Changing the institutional setup has been underway for several years — the PSC recommends a firm deadline — as key vacancies remain unfilled. This includes not only, for example, the committee section, but also Parliamentary Protection Services which has not had a permanent boss for four years.

Parliamentary Protection Services is the in-house security, which traditionally leads the liaison committee that includes the SAPS. Instead, the police seized on Garane’s suicide as “a security breach” to roll out its plan to secure Parliament as, what it calls, “a government installation”.

This effectively has reduced the status of Parliament. To put it bluntly: a part of the executive sphere of the state has effectively taken control of another arm of state, the legislative sphere, on whose precinct not even traffic fine summonses are served without the express permission of the presiding officers.

Go figure why anyone even remotely interested in upholding Parliament as the legislative sphere of state in a real sense, not the puffed up protocol illusion of importance, would allow such a take-over.

But it’s been made possible by the lack of a permanent, legitimate boss for Parliamentary Protection Services, which has been thrown into turmoil by the significantly better terms and conditions of employment for the so-called bouncers recruited at short notice in mid-2015, predominately with the aim of evicting unruly EFF MPs.

A labour court case by 69 Parliamentary Protection Services officials is headed back to court, after all, Parliament offered was a review of their employment provisions in what effectively was an echo of an undertaking made, and not implemented, years ago.

The parliamentary protection officers’ grievances were raised internally in January 2017 — and unfolded in court barely two months after Garane’s suicide over workplace bullying and failure of Parliament to deal with his grievances.

In November 2018, when the Parliamentary Protection Services case was first heard in court, it also emerged from an internal info alert that Phindela had been removed as acting deputy Secretary to Parliament with effect from 15 November 2018. An independent inquiry had found against him on claims of bullying and unfair labour practice in relation to a promotion.

Talk in Parliament’s passageways is of a toxic environment. But little is said openly. In September 2019, on leaving, one employee sent out a WhatsApp message:

I am shifting from a toxic environment. The money is good but it is not a cure for unhappiness. Instead of taking a gun this afternoon I have decided to pack up all that’s personal in my office and left [sic]”.

Parliament issued an internal info alert cautioning against a false message making the rounds. It’s a similar approach to the public stance taken as recently as in January 2019 when Parliament’s working environment was raised in at least one public meeting by former managers, Garane family members and civil society organisations.

Under the heading “Parliament dismisses falsehoods by former staff members”, the national legislatures responded on 22 January:

Parliament denounces these individuals’ attempt to exploit the tragic situation for narrow personal ends and to unduly influence the work of the commission. The opportunistic claims made by this group that they left Parliament due to its ‘toxicity’ cannot be backed by any factual evidence. It is unfortunate that the listed civil society organisations have opted to jump on the bandwagon of this campaign, which is pre-emptive to the outcome of the independent inquiry, and without doing [a] basic fact check regarding the group’s unfounded allegations against Parliament.”

That response is in line with the first official statement three days after Garane’s suicide, which raised the boosting of security:

Parliament has also noted with concern the speculative and harmful conclusions on the alleged factors behind the death, which are still under investigation. Parliament wishes to appeal to all and sundry to give the investigations appropriate space and avoid perpetrating actions and utterances that could further retard the healing of the family and compromise the investigations into this tragedy”.

The independent PSC probe Parliament had requested is complete. It found Garane had legitimate grievances. It found inadequate policies and practices that need to be fixed. It recommended steps vis-a-vis three senior leaders in Parliament’s administration for their failure to act appropriately.

This was a moment for Parliament to rise to the occasion — and at least take the first definitive step towards a better version of itself. Instead, Parliament let itself down amid platitudes about dynamics, processes and better understanding by those in charge.

That’s not the example South Africa’s lawmakers should set. DM

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