“The MBDA, like any state institution, is public property that cannot be left to the whims of leaders who would want to treat it as their personal fiefdom.”
This is what Port Elizabeth advocate Luvuyo Bono wrote in this newspaper last May.
Bono, a Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA) board member at the time, had just taken on a legal (read political) battle with the municipality over the local bosses’ decision to dissolve the board.
I do not know Bono and thus cannot vouch for his motives beyond what he made public. The matter was a complex one. In short, MBDA chief executive Pierre Voges’s contract had ended in March last year.
The board, Voges’s employer, would not renew it, stating a clause in the contract which seemingly prohibited its renewal.
The municipality, to which the board is accountable, was not happy with that decision.
Then mayor Danny Jordaan wanted Voges to stay on until after the August elections.
And so suddenly popped up a legal opinion which suggested that the board itself had not been legally constituted when it was appointed back in 2014.
Based on this opinion, city manager Johann Mettler said the board had to go.
But Bono would not take this lying down.
He called the metro’s bluff and headed to court to challenge the process undertaken to dissolve the board.
Mettler opted to settle out of court – with costs – while pursuing correct processes.
By the way, if our deep throats are to be believed, your rates paid a couple of hundred thousand rands in legal fees in that matter.
Nonetheless, Voges subsequently stayed in the position on a month-to-month contract.
In June, Bono and others eventually quit and a new board took over.
Fast forward to last month and Voges announced that he had resigned.
“It’s time for someone younger and with more energy to take over,” he said.
I, therefore, was astounded when it emerged last week that Voges had apparently received a million-rand settlement to leave the agency. Why? I asked. Let us be clear, my issue here is not with Voges’s competence or work record in the agency.
I am on record commending the work done by the MBDA – under his leadership – to develop parts of our city in the last decade.
Not withstanding the criticism from some sectors of our business community, I believe the MBDA has been a great catalyst for development in parts of the metro.
The point I am making is that it simply does not make sense to dish out a million bucks of public money to a man who told us he had voluntarily stepped down from his month-to-month contract.
Therefore the argument raised by some who justified this settlement on the basis of Voges’s record and the ANC administration’s history of golden handshakes is hypocritical and, frankly, daft.
We must, therefore, ask what actually happened?
What we know about this settlement is only what we have been told by four municipal insiders who cannot be named for obvious reasons.
Yet their proximity to the matter makes their word difficult to ignore.
Their version, independently told to us, is that Voges wanted his contract renewed.
The board, like the previous one, refused and instead offered him a six-month extension while it sought a new chief executive.
This was not good enough for Voges and so he began to bargain, insiders said.
He claimed to have been advised by his lawyers that if he was let go, he would have a strong case against the MBDA. This is where it gets murky. Voges is said to have told the board that because his contract had previously been extended, a reasonable expectation of its renewal had been created. This does not make sense to me. Our insiders further claim that the board then sought its own legal opinion, which seemed to support Voges’s stance.
And so, based on this – we were told – Voges walked away with a payout as well as a short-term contract to manage the Mandela Bay Stadium.
Naturally this settlement raises valid questions, which I firmly believe should be answered by the board primarily, as well as the municipality in the interests of good governance and transparency.
Yet when asked, none of those involved would speak on the matter, with the board claiming the settlement was confidential.
Although perhaps misguided, I accept Voges’s refusal to speak on the matter. He is not obliged to do so. However, while I understand the MBDA is an entity governed by the Companies Act, it is a state agency and therefore carries a far greater burden of transparency than your average firm.
Therefore it is not readily clear to me why the board would enter into such an agreement with Voges.
Further, I am not convinced that such an agreement serves as a sufficient reason to absolve the agency from publicly accounting on the reasons thereof.
Similarly, the municipality’s responsibility to transparency and accountability is even greater.
The moral obligation on the coalition government to account publicly is even more so in a city such as ours.
Our dubious history of paying golden handshakes, at times to questionable characters, is the very reason why both the DA and the UDM were emphatic in their campaign promises to do away with such, should they be elected.
We expect nothing less.
It is not fake news – as bizarrely suggested by a board member – when the media expect that all those appointed to manage public money do so prudently.
Equally, those elected to exercise oversight must be compelled to do so at all times, without fear or favour.
That is the only way to guard against the temptation to turn our public entities into personal fiefdoms.
Nwabisa Makunga is the deputy editor of The Herald and Weekend Post.