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Former transport minister Sibusiso Ndebele has shrugged off suggestions that his redeployment during last week’s cabinet reshuffle was due to his part in the Gauteng e-tolling debacle.
During a visit to Westville Prison, on his second day as correctional services minister, Ndebele was asked to respond to perceptions that he had been demoted.
Ndebele was replaced as transport minister by SACP central committee member, Ben Martins.
“E-tolling is government policy… If tolling was a crime, I was not at the scene,” Ndebele asserted.
He had earlier said he was “excited” by his new portfolio, calling it “a welcome change” after serving 13 of his 18 years in government in the transport department, at one time as KwaZulu-Natal’s MEC.
Ndebele said he was particularly interested in the “correctional” element of the prison system.
“One thing I’d really like to see is everybody coming out of here with a qualification.” he said. “You can’t have a person sentenced to 20 years who can’t write their name, or read or count.”
Ndebele said that SA had come a long way from a system in which prisoners had been humiliated and dehumanised, and said that whatever his department did, it had to make offenders “better people”.
“Believe it or not, we are a product of prisons ourselves,” he said referring to his 11 years on Robben Island, where he worked in the library.
Another of Ndebele’s objectives is to explore “creative” new ways of addressing the perpetual problem of inmate overcrowding.
Westville caters for 6 000. But as of Friday, its population was 9 768.
He recalled being in Swaziland some time ago, where offenders who did not pose a danger to society would be sentenced to weekends in jail.
For instance, Ndebele said, a school teacher would swop his jacket and tie for overalls at 4pm on a Friday, checking out again at 4pm on Sunday.
Prison authorities told Ndebele that they also suffered staff shortages in KwaZulu-Natal, with only 7 000 of 9 000 positions filled due to budget constraints, and despite an overwhelming number of applications.
During his tour of the prison, Ndebele visited the section that houses youths between 18 and 21 years old, as well as the women’s and men’s cells.
Ndebele spoke to a group of youths about the meaning of June 16, telling them that rather than “vulnerable, volatile and violent” they needed to strive toward becoming “viable, vibrant and victorious”.