By Moepeng Talane
The Public Service Commission (PSC) may have gotten rid of the main players in a nepotism scandal that rocked the institution early in 2020, leading to the dismissal of its director-general (DG), but the body is far from clearing itself of the stigma of a hithertofore largely unknown culture of autocracy and bad governance that has plagued it for years.
This is according to a whistle-blower who spoke to Corruption Watch on condition of anonymity, for fear of victimisation. The individual painted a grim picture of an institution – constitutionally mandated to oversee matters of good governance within the public service – that is itself wounded and in desperate need of an overhaul.
The DG and the ‘baby mama’
Boitumelo Mogwe was appointed in December 2019 as chief director: professional ethics by the father of her child and then PSC DG Dr Dovhani Mamphiswana. She was the last of four candidates to be interviewed late in October of the same year. The other three, more qualified than her, according to the findings of an investigation into the appointment process, appear to have never stood a chance. An investigative report detailing events around her appointment quotes a witness as saying Mogwe appeared sure of her good fortune immediately after the interview, sharing plans of relocating to Gauteng from the Free State, her base at the time.
Both have since been dismissed, Mamphiswana by President Cyril Ramaphosa in December last year, following investigations into the circumstances leading to the irregular appointment, and Mogwe more recently, on the recommendation of the investigation. The irregular appointment would probably not have raised the right eyebrows, had it not been for a Sunday Independent report on the front page of the newspaper’s 26 January 2020 edition. It detailed the events surrounding Mogwe’s appointment, quoting a whistle-blower from within the PSC.
Just days later, Advocate Smanga Sethene was appointed to probe the matter, on instruction from the state attorney’s office. The whistle-blower who spoke to Corruption Watch claims that had it not been for a direct instruction from the public service minister at the time, Senzo Mchunu, for a probe, PSC chairperson Advocate Richard Sizani would have swept the matter under the carpet in the hope that the bad publicity would fizzle out.
Not so, says PSC spokesperson Humphrey Ramafoko, who told Corruption Watch that the investigation was launched just three days after the newspaper article, indicating Sizani’s dedication to uncovering the truth. This despite Sethene himself noting in his final report that although this was initially the case, the investigation was halted soon after the instruction from Mchunu, before it resumed again months later, in June.
“The reason advanced for this suspension [of the investigation] was that it is the president that has to commission the investigation as it involves the alleged misconduct of the DG of the PSC,” writes Sethene in his report. He does note, however, that Sizani told staff and commissioners alike in separate memoranda that an investigation into the matter would receive his full support.
The investigation found that neither Mamphiswana nor Mogwe declared to those participating in the interview process – a panel in which Mamphiswana was the most senior staff member – that they had a personal relationship.
Furthermore, other candidates shortlisted for interviews were far better qualified than Mogwe for the position, both academically and in terms of experience, a fact that seemed to not have been taken into consideration at the time. Mamphiswana sat in the interview panel knowing fully that he should have disclosed his relationship to the panel, and accordingly, made the necessary arrangements for a recusal.
“I find that the members of the panel that shortlisted Ms Mogwe did not apply their minds properly to what it means to have five years’ experience in the field of professional ethics,” Sethene continues.
“Ms Mogwe had no ethics training at all according to her own CV. There is no indication in her CV as to whether she had the necessary five years of experience in the field of professional ethics in accordance with the requirements of the position she was ultimately appointed to.”
Sethene further notes that he received no co-operation from Mamphiswana and Mogwe, both of them citing the presidency probe as the only one they were prepared to subject themselves to.
Harassment and victimisation
While the investigation was going on, staff of the PSC were allegedly subjected to harassment by the institution’s leadership, in a quest to root out the person who gave the Sunday Independent the story, according to the whistle-blower.
Despite this, they believe that beyond the scandal and the traumatic episodes alleged to have happened to suspected informers in the aftermath, there is an opportunity to rid the commission of its toxic environment and rebuild it to its former glory.
“The question really is how can this constitutional body that is the centre of anti-corruption allow itself to be entertaining corrupt officials for such long periods of time?
“Now the PSC has gone on a drive for the past two or three years where they are promoting these values and principles in the constitution and they call that their CVPs – constitutional values and principles – where they go and check if the departments comply with section 195[of the Constitution].”
From the whistle-blower’s point of view, a complete overhaul of the institution is needed for it to restore the confidence that South Africans had in it as a constitutional body. Sethene too addressed the issue of trust and morale among staff, recommending that witnesses who participated in his investigation be protected from victimisation.
PSC spokesperson Humphrey Ramafoko claims that a lot is being done already to address issues of low staff morale that have built up over time. “A number of culture change initiatives have taken place in the organisation to boost the staff morale. The organisation will continue to implement various interventions geared towards a unified and cohesive PSC team that will be focused on successfully executing the mandate of the PSC.”
But how did we get here?
While the whistle-blower is adamant that the general environment under which the Mampiswana-Mogwe incident happened was ripe for such abuse of power and rules, the PSC itself places the responsibility and blame squarely at the pair’s feet, if Ramafoko’s response to Corruption Watch’s questions is anything to go by.
“The nature of the non-disclosure of information leading to the allegations of nepotism is specific to the two individuals that have already been disciplined and dismissed,” said Ramafoko in response to a proposition informed by the whistle-blower’s claim that Sizani would have known about the conflict of interest that existed prior to Mogwe’s promotion.
But, the whistle-blower insists, the problem is broader than this. “If you think of it logically, if he [Mamphiswana] could have put in the mother of his child into a job, chances are that people that he appointed during his tenure could be suspect too,” says the whistle-blower.
Auditor-general to investigate
Corruption Watch has requested the office of the Auditor-General of South Africa (Agsa) to conduct an audit of several senior appointment processes within the PSC, a move that may be hindered by a constitutional challenge, given that the Agsa’s oversight powers may be limited when it comes to the PSC, an equal in the structure of constitutionally mandated agencies.
“We made this request on the basis of allegations received, perceived lack of action internally by the PSC and a recognition that the Agsa is one of the few bodies with the mandate to audit and pursue accountability in such instances,” head of legal and investigations Karam Singh explains.
“While the PSC is a constitutional body with its own mandate in this area, the Agsa, we believe, was the best placed institution to evaluate the allegations.”
More must be done
With the PSC itself confirming Mogwe’s dismissal and the earlier removal of Mamphiswana, should Corruption Watch and other organisations in its sector not be satisfied that the commission did the right thing?
Singh believes that the PSC leadership dodged its responsibility in the matter. In numerous correspondence between himself and the commission, emphasis is placed by the latter on the institution having to wait for the findings of the presidency probe. Meanwhile, the full extent of irregularities that may have happened under Mamphiswana’s watch could go unchecked.
The whistle-blower shares Singh’s sentiments: “It’s a question of ‘oh okay’ if you are able to do this with one of the staff, what about the other people? And he [Mamphiswana] did hire quite a lot of people. Some, it’s alleged, were close to his village, or people from his village, stuff like that.”
If this is indeed the case, and Mamphiswana oversaw the appointments of staff members willy-nilly by virtue of them being known to him, then how is the restoration of the PSC going to happen?
“In the case of wrongdoing, the Agsa presumably is empowered to provide recommendations which can seek to correct and provide some form consequence management,” Singh says.
One step in the right direction would be for the PSC to recoup monies paid to Mogwe from December 2019 to the time of her recent dismissal, a process that Ramafoko confirmed is under discussion.
“In accordance with the applicable legislation, the PSC is considering the appropriate action to be taken to remedy the irregular appointment, including but not limited to obtaining a court order as well as recovery of any monies due and payable to the PSC.”