When wrong-doers are protected, whistle-blowers are often the ones who end up being punished, while the culprit smugly carries on with their shenanigans. So it was in the case of the misbehaving principal vs the school governing body (SGB) of Walter Sisulu Primary School in Olivenhoutbosch, Centurion. Gauteng Education MEC Payaza Lesufi went on national television in March 2015 to call on parents to participate in the SGB elections of that year, saying it was in the interest of turning around the education system for the benefit of learners. In that live SABC interview, Lesufi shared his disappointment at parents’ visible lack of interest in taking part: out of the province’s 2 100 schools at the time, just under 500 had already elected SGBs, with over 1 600 remaining. The interview took place 16 days before the deadline for schools to have completed the process. The election process was already halfway through its allocated duration, and just under a third of schools had taken part. “We will never get public education right if parents are not playing a role,” said Lesufi. “We need parents who can determine whether the school is clean, whether indeed we have the best principals and what is happening inside the classroom.” Only if we have the best leaders in terms of the governing body, and the school principal, and teachers in the classroom, Lesufi added, would we be able to turn the education system around . At the time, Moagi Thebe had been chairperson of the SGB at Walter Sisulu for several months. He had been elected through a by-election for a new governing body at the school. He was, however, frustrated at the lack of support for what he says was a repeated call for justice against gross abuse of power by the principal of the school, Garos Kabinde. Thebe is just what Lesufi was calling for – an SGB chairperson with a desire to do things the right way, to root out irregularities, and to improve the school’s governance. However, he was to be thwarted at every turn.

No action by authorities, despite evidence

Thebe wrote to Corruption Watch early in 2017 to highlight challenges that he faced as SGB chairperson, and the impact these had on him. According to him, Kabinde had not been held accountable by his superiors, despite plentiful evidence presented before them of mismanagement of school funds. Thebe has since been removed from his position, again through a by-election. Letters written by Thebe to Lesufi’s office as well as the district and head offices of the department while he was still chairperson, are in the possession of Corruption Watch. They detail allegations of mismanagement of school funds, disregard of Thebe’s oversight role, and union interference in the appointment of teaching staff. Morale among teachers at the school, Thebe told Corruption Watch, has been low for years. “All of [the allegations] are known by the district director of Tshwane South, Mrs [Hilda] Kekana … and [the district] fails to take any steps even after receiving complaints and grievances,” he notes in the letter to Lesufi. “They would rather ignore or organise a workshop on the roles of the SGB rather than deal with the issues at hand.” To date, Thebe claims, he has received no response or acknowledgement from Lesufi’s office on the matter. “Instead what I was told by one of the directors off the record is that the principal had been investigated and not found guilty of any misconduct.” The Gauteng Department of Education’s (GDE) regional director for Tshwane, Zanele Mthembu, told Corruption Watch that: “an investigation was conducted by the office of the chief director on the allegations raised by Mr Thebe regarding mismanagement of funds at Walter Sisulu Primary School. “It was found that there was no evidence to substantiate Mr Thebe’s allegation that the principal mismanaged funds.”

Prevented from carrying out SGB mandate

It all started when Thebe requested access to the school’s financials some time after his appointment. Kabinde, he says, refused to give him the documents, giving no reason for this. “To this day, I have never been given official access to the school’s financials. I only knew that the school gets R2-million a year from the GDE, and that this money came in four tranches each year.” What he did know, however, was that the school had three accounts – two of them investment accounts, while the third was a current account. The legality of this arrangement was also a cause for concern for Thebe. According to Mthembu, the investigation into Kabinde had established that the school kept two bank accounts, one of them a current account and the other an investment account. This was an anomaly in terms of the South African Schools Act (SASA), as the SGB was not granted permission by the HOD to hold an additional bank account. “However, at the time of the investigation, it was discovered that the investment account had been closed and funds transferred to the current account resulting in the school keeping one account.” Mthembu made no mention of whether any action was taken against the SGB or Kabinde for this anomaly. As a member of the finance committee within the board, Thebe was entitled by law to gain access to the school’s books. What more, he was partly accountable for how this money was spent. He claims he had to resort to going to the bank to investigate the activities of the account on his own. “I was only included as one of the school’s bankers eight months after being elected,” he told Corruption Watch. Because he is officially recognised for this role, the bank gave him access to the statements. “I asked for statements dating back to 2013, prior to my election on to the SGB, and I came across lots of suspicious transactions.” One transaction showed an amount of R750 000 that was withdrawn from one of the school’s two investment accounts and put into the current account. “That is when it started disappearing … I confronted the principal and asked what had happened there, and his response was that we hadn’t received the procurement budget from the department, hence the gap in cash flows.” Kabinde, he says, suggested that they could wait for the next tranche of funds, which was to come in in the next term, and would be used for buying books and other material for learners. “I then asked him for grant certificates from the department that verify when funds have been transferred to the school, to see if it was indeed a case of delay from the department. He again would not give me those documents.” It was at this stage that Thebe started drafting letters to the necessary authorities, and then called the school’s institutional development and support officer (IDSO) for a meeting to discuss the financial statements. When no action was taken, he escalated the matter to the district office. “The principal agreed to calling officials from the district over for a meeting, which took place, but again nothing happened.” Thebe says the lack of action demonstrated, for him, that Kabinde was being protected by his superiors.

Glaring irregularities but still nothing done

It was becoming clear that the previous SGB had struggled in the same way, says Thebe, to the extent that there had not been a proper handover of duties. “You will not believe it when I tell you that the treasurer of the SGB had been in that position for 15 years. She is a woman in her seventies, with no children in the school, so how is it possible that she keeps coming back as treasurer?” He suspects that the treasurer’s consistent reinstatement serves the interest of the principal. The SASA requires that executive members of the SGB, who are not members of staff, be parents or guardians of learners who are in that school during their term. The exception to this rule is where a member of the community is co-opted by virtue of their possession of a required skill, in the absence of that skill being found among parents or staff. “I asked for documentation proving that this woman is indeed representing a learner in the school, and I was never furnished with that information,” says Thebe. Again this lack of access to school documents was highlighted to the IDSO, but nothing was done. “From then on he [Kabinde] made every effort to block me from getting any information about the school.” Apart from the frustration of no access to school documents, another challenge arose for the SGB in the form of alleged irregularities in the appointment of a head of department. “Seeing as the IDSO was not keen to take up our grievances, I escalated the matter to the district director for Tshwane South, under which our school falls.” He cited, in his letter to district director Hilda Kekana, how the standard processes were compromised owing to what seemed like interference from the principal and the union representatives present. His request for the matter to be investigated was not approved. Mthembu refutes this, however. “There was lack of material information to conduct an investigation on the conduct of the district director because the complainant (Thebe) failed to submit further information to assist the investigation,” she told Corruption Watch.

Whistle-blower takes the fall

By this time, says Thebe, he had started seeing signs of unhappiness with the principal’s leadership from some of the teachers. He decided to capitalise on the opportunity to bring the attention of the provincial department’s head office to the school. A petition was developed that was circulated among staff over some time, with a list of grievances that pointed to lack of leadership by the principal. This document too made its way to the department’s head office, and on investigating it, the department concluded that Thebe be removed from the SGB for inciting such action among its employees. “Some of the teachers called me to say they wish to withdraw their signatures from the petition … they could not live with the victimisation.” The impact of the department’s inaction on the morale of the teachers is huge, says Thebe. He adds that the disregard for the supreme law of the country, the Constitution, is shocking. This case is another example of how government departments can be a stumbling block in the path towards good governance. The principal is still in his post, while the person who uncovered irregularities was not supported by the department and in the end, was pushed out of his SGB position.