In May, Cooperative Governance Minister Des van Rooyen told parliament that 29 officials of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro had been fired for corruption since Danny Jordaan had taken over as mayor last year. My colleagues and I were stunned.
This was news to us. We knew two or three officials who had been accused of misconduct had struck settlement deals with the municipality, that they had packed up and left before they could be nailed.
But 29 fired? How on earth did we miss this, we asked ourselves as the news went viral on various media platforms across the country, gaining the ANC some desperately needed mileage ahead of the elections.
But typically, Van Rooyen was wrong. In fact, disciplinary hearings against some of the suspended officials had not been concluded.
Some claimed they had not even been fully charged yet.
I could not figure out whether Van Rooyen, the former mayor of the Merafong municipality, had perhaps misunderstood the difference between a suspension and a dismissal or whether he had misled parliament because, you know, he is David “weekend special” Douglas van Rooyen.
Or that he himself had been misled by members of Jordaan’s election campaign machinery in an effort to project the mayor as the fixer the ANC needed him to be. Nonetheless, what Van Rooyen said was not true and here we still are.
Several senior officials are sitting at home more than a year after they were suspended. They are accused of misconduct and many other callous acts which, for a period, brought this municipality to its knees and rendered it unable to perform some of the most basic governance functions.
Last month marked a year and a bit since the most senior official in the group, Mod Ndoyana, had been suspended. This means by last month, the municipality had paid to Ndoyana at least R1.6-million while he has sat at home for the past year.
In fact in the same week Van Rooyen told tales in parliament, Ndoyana told my colleague: “I have sat at home for almost a year and they have only dealt with two charges, which are not even serious.”
The story is similar for the rest of the officials. Whether or not they are guilty of all they are accused of can only be determined through a legitimate process which must meet all legal requirements. Seemingly, it is that process that the municipality has simply been unable to pull off.
In July last year, then mayor Jordaan told the council, “We are not going to allow corrupt officials to loot funds intended for development. The reports of the forensic investigations are now being finalised and we will act swiftly on their recommendations.”
Yet despite preaching this gladiator stance on many public platforms around the city, Jordaan and his team won a few battles, but ultimately lost the war.
In fairness, let me state that as a team of journalists on this newspaper, we have followed the disciplinary cases of many of the accused closely enough to appreciate the complex nature of labour disputes in South Africa. We have watched the municipality draw up a list of alleged transgressions against employees only to have its processes sabotaged or tripped up by one technicality after another.
We have also watched acting city boss Johann Mettler ultimately blindsided and out-manoeuvred at every turn by some of the accused who have cunningly used the very labour laws that govern this country to avoid subjecting themselves to the rule of law. Herein lies the challenge for the newly elected coalition government.
Chief among the election campaign promises by the DA and the UDM was to fight corruption and to restore efficient governance to a metro that had been wounded by years of chaotic ANC rule.
These were good promises. They were made with good intentions and earned the parties a combined 184 520 votes, which make up the majority stake of the entire coalition partnership.
But at the time, like all election promises, they were, in my view, simplistic and sentimental in nature. They did not appear mindful of the intricacies involved at times when dealing with disciplinary matters in a country with labour laws as stringent as ours.
Now off the campaign trail and firmly in office, mayor Athol Trollip and his deputy, Mongameli Bobani, need to show their mettle. How they deal with these cases will set the scene for the next five years.
It will give us insight into their ability to navigate the muddy waters of governance and possibly lay a foundation for a new organisational culture in the metro.
A culture we hope will bring a new era of accountability and consequences to a system once notorious across the country for being a free-for-all cesspool.
If, at the end of this process, it is proven that the suspensions were merely a political witchhunt, as some of the accused claim, then let it be known.
Let the people know that instead of dealing with culprits, Jordaan and company dithered and played meaningless political games which hamstrung our development and set us back several millions in the bank.
But if the accused are guilty, then this is it.
We must, as promised, witness a government that spares no effort to go after rogues who looted and broke down the very fibre of a functioning state, thus locking our beautiful metro in a never-ending cycle of deprivation.
It is time to tackle the beast.