Mettler discliplinary keeps Bobani vendetta alive

Johann Mettler. File Picture
Johann Mettler. File Picture
Image: Fredlin Adriaan

“Is this really still necessary?”, I asked myself on reading The Herald’s headline story last Friday about Johann Mettler.

He has now been suspended for 16 months from his position as the metro’s city manager and is being taken through a disciplinary process.

Thus far the municipality has spent R4, 5m on legal fees and paid Mettler a total of R3,6m in salary just for staying at home.

All this money — almost R10m — is not only wasteful expenditure, but the disciplinary process has also since been made redundant by events.

For starters, Mettler’s suspension was never warranted. It was both vindictive and meant to enable maladministration to siphon funds.

Mettler earned Bobani’s ire for simply insisting on proper management.

Then deputy mayor and responsible for public health, Bobani wanted to employ unqualified people with the intention of having them, in turn, do his bidding.

Mettler eventually opened a charge of corruption against Bobani involving a waste management company that was improperly awarded a contract on Bobani’s insistence.

By the time Bobani became mayor on August 27 2018, Mettler had made an enemy out of him.

Bobani’s ire grew within days of being mayor.

Mettler had rebuffed his instruction to halt the issuing of tenders and recruitment, an area that fell outside his ambit as mayor.

Bobani promptly punished Mettler with a suspension, citing 13 charges.

The municipality has now dropped several of those charges on account they are frivolous.

This affirms Mettler’s innocence of mismanagement, but the ANC and its allies in council are reportedly intent on pressing ahead with the disciplinary action.

Their insistence has nothing to do with (mal) administration per se, but betrays a discomfort with Mettler as city manager.

They accuse Mettler of bias in favour of the DA in his handling of the fateful council session that saw Athol Trollip removed as mayor.

The source of their accusation was Mettler’s contradictory rulings over Mxolisi Manyathi’s status as DA councillor.

Manyathi’s status was pivotal to how the motion of no-confidence over Trollip as mayor would turn.

His abstention in the vote just earlier had enabled the ousting of DA’s Jonathan Lawack as speaker; that’s what partly got the DA to fire Manyathi on the spot.

If Mettler accepted the DA’s dismissal of Manyathi as their councillor, then council would not quorate, which meant Trollip would survive.

Conversely, if Mettler agreed with Manyathi that the DA’s decision to terminate his membership did not take effect immediately, then council would quorate, making it possible for the ANC to vote out Trollip.    

All parties looked at Mettler — he held the fate of the government of the city in his hands.

Instead of providing immediate direction, Mettler contradicted himself.

First, he agreed with the DA that Manyathi was no longer councillor and therefore council could not sit as the DA’s walkout denied it of a quorum.

Then he changed his mind, saying Manyathi was still councillor.

This meant council could quorate, even without the DA and postponed the resumption to the next day.

The DA objected, arguing that a council meeting couldn’t be convened without parties receiving advanced notice of no less than five days.

The DA was correct, but they also wanted to buy time to ensure Manyathi’s termination of membership went through.

Mettler acceded to the DA’s objection and subsequently issued another message communicating a different date  — September 3 2018 — for the resumption of council.    

It is those contradictory rulings that Bobani, once he became mayor, used to hound Mettler out of the municipality.

He accused Mettler of partisan behaviour; however Bobani’s characterisation of Mettler counts for nothing.

He was already prejudiced against the city manager.

Even when examined alone, the charge of bias against Mettler does not hold.

It is unreasonable to expect Mettler to have known instantly what to do on the day when faced with the Manyathi matter.

Mettler obtained legal advice that the DA’s decision to fire Manyathi took effect immediately.

He went along with the advice, but quickly realised it might be incorrect.

Then he went for a second legal opinion, which contradicted the initial advice.

This led to him changing his earlier decision to reinstating Manyathi’s status as councillor — a decision that obviously went against the DA’s interest.

The idea that Mettler’s actions on the day were geared towards favouring the DA is not persuasive.

He had never encountered something like that before and was likely rattled by the intensity of the proceedings, which were quite raucous.

This probably explains why he never formally adjourned the meeting, but simply walked out.

Had Mettler’s decision been aimed to benefit the DA, he would have adjourned the meeting.

Doing so, as Judge Huisamen would later rule, would have made it impossible for the provincial government to send an official to preside over the ousting of Trollip.

Once the presiding officer adjourns a council meeting, it can’t be resumed.

Because that meeting was technically still in session, and Mettler refused to return, the provincial government was entitled to send a representative to complete the business of council.

In his rattled state, Mettler did not realise that he actually needed to formally adjourn the meeting and that his mere absence from the chamber did not render the meeting closed.

If this council continues with the disciplinary action against Mettler, it would be continuing with Bobani’s vendetta against the city manager.

It would mean their firing of Bobani on grounds of unbecoming conduct was a sham.

  • Mcebisi Ndletyana is associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Anatomy of the ANC in Power: Insights from Port Elizabeth, 1990 to 2019 (HSRC Press, 2020)