Thokozani Magwaza. Picture: SUPPLIED
Thokozani Magwaza. Picture: SUPPLIED

In the past few weeks, two directors-general of government departments have been suspended and the CEO of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) fired.

The three cases have lots in common. The directors-general, water affairs head Dan Mashitisho and agriculture head Mike Mlengana, had been asked by their  political principals to sign contracts they believed were illegal or unprocedural.

Sassa CEO Thokozani Magwaza has had a long conflict with his principal, Bathabile Dlamini, over her interference in the agency’s work, in particular finalising a contract with a new service provider to conduct the payment of social grants.

If the Cabinet was the embodiment of SA’s collective leadership and not just, as Thabo Mbeki recently said, "a confederation of ministers" each pursuing their own agenda, alarm bells would be ringing. And if Jacob Zuma was a president who took the responsibility of governing seriously, he would have called in his ministers to discuss the situation.

The abrupt termination of [Sassa CEO Thokozani Magwaza's] contract followed a series of death threats that came after he had put an end to 'the workstreams' established by Bathabile Dlamini

But, instead, senior government officials are left vulnerable and exposed. As accounting officers, they are the ones who will take the fall should contracts they sign or appointments they make be judged irregular. Yet there is no protection from any quarter for doing the right thing and playing by the book.

Agriculture and water affairs have serious problems. Mashitisho, who had been in the job only six months, was the fifth senior official in the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation to be suspended. The department has deep financial challenges and has been unable to pay suppliers, which led to some officials talking privately earlier in 2017 about asking the Treasury to put the department under administration.

City Press newspaper has exposed a litany of tender irregularities, including an emergency water project in Giyani, where the price escalated from R500m to R5bn; the second phase of the R26bn Lesotho Highlands Water project and a R950m SAP contract that was supposed to cost R400m. Mashitisho’s transgression, it appears, was his refusal to appoint a particular law firm – in this case Werksmans – to do the investigation into the tenders.

In Mlengana’s case, he says his suspension followed shortly after he declined to sign a dodgy transaction for the appointment of security advisers he says Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana wanted done.

Of the three, though, former Sassa head Magwaza’s case takes the cake. The abrupt termination of his contract followed a series of death threats that came after he had put an end to "the workstreams" established by Dlamini. These were groups of consultants answering to the minister that operated in parallel to the department. The Treasury had recently informed Magwaza the workstreams were illegally appointed. Magwaza had also been negotiating a deal with the South African Post Office to take over the payment of grants.

The former director-general of the department, Zane Dangor, who resigned from his position in the midst of the Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) saga, was also threatened and had two assailants enter his home and attack his family.

A strong possibility has now reappeared that Sassa and the department will not have a new solution in eight months’ time when CPS’s contract expires. This seems to be what Dlamini’s delays for the past two years have been about: sabotaging any progress so that CPS can land the contract again.

It is clear that most of those who serve in the Cabinet are ruthless in pursuit of their own corrupt objectives. Those who are not are content to sit by and mind their own business.

It is a treacherous environment for public servants, many of whom we would like to think have the best interests of the country at heart.

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