#StateCaptureInquiry: The defiant courage of Phumla Williams
Opinion / 6 September 2018, 10:15am / Sandile Memela
The emotion-stirring testimony by Government Communication and Information System acting director-general Phumla Williams has shed light, at last, on the heat that some, if not many, government officials and corporate executives are subjected to in the course of doing their work.
The over one million government officials at all levels will be thankful for the courageous stance taken by Williams and others, such as her predecessor Themba Maseko, who have come forward to testify before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.
Presumably, Williams is not the first high-profile government official to have unburdened herself about the trauma and painful experience of being an overlooked and marginalised official.
There are probably hundreds of silent officials, in government and outside, who could testify that there is nothing special or unique about her situation.
Strange as it may sound, it seems to be a commonplace except that other colleagues are perhaps afraid or reluctant to speak honestly and openly about their plight.
It is a serious indictment that a selfless, self-sacrificing and committed servant of the people can confess to such alleged abuse, humiliation and psychological torture at the hands of a democratic government. She attempted to use all available avenues to resolve her matter, but to no avail.
Williams likened her pain and trauma to the torment she was subjected to by agents of the apartheid regime. “(This) ripped open my scars of torture. I never thought that this government could do such things,” she said.
She went on to detail the nightmares, sleepless nights of battling with demons, panic attacks and almost being pushed to the brink of self-destruction and suicide or death.
But it was her resilience and inner strength as a principled former cadre of the Struggle who could not be broken by the Askaris that saved her.
It must be said that her testimony is not necessarily about an individual experience. Also, the public and general citizenry must not be distracted by the cynics’ dismissal of Williams’s “emotional confession.”
Instead, the discourse and focus must be placed on the reasons and factors that make it impossible for others in the government and corporate world to take a principled stand to speak freely according to their conscience.
By confining their attention to Williams and a few of the others’ submissions, the public would be overlooking and missing the whole point: the psycho-mental and emotional trauma and fear that is inflicted on principled and dedicated public servants that undermine their ability and commitment to perform to the maximum to serve the interests of the people.
This non-physical violent assault on the person-hood of committed public servants is at the heart of the crisis of delivery, if you like. There are far too many government officials across the departments, provinces and municipalities that can attest to being too close to the fire or hurled into it.
Worse, there is a toxic and destructive institutional culture that seems to have crept into South African organisations, including the public and private sector.
To survive or rise in the ranks, the prerequisite seems to be to affiliate with some faction or group or just reduce oneself to a “Yes-man or woman”.
This was best captured by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela in her inaugural address at the University of Cape Town where she too was, shockingly, subjected to this. Also, she applied this psycho-analysis on the significance of the death of Dr Bongani Mayosi, who now exemplifies the abuse and humiliation that the talented are subjected to.
She said: “By confining the meaning of violence only to those acts that have physical consequences, I argued, we overlook some of the most destructive acts of violence to the human soul perpetrated by people we encounter in everyday corridors of our environment throughout the institutional context in which we spend most of our lives.
“There are subtle and not-so-subtle systematic acts of violence aimed at undermining the dignity and sense of worth of others - the insidious acts of violence that so often make people feel that their sense of identity is threatened and that destroy the psychological and spiritual integrity of others.”
Williams has detailed and outlined how she was made to feel - by superiors and underlings - that she was a person of no worth, with her dignity and integrity deeply questioned and insulted.
Most people live to work and it is work that gives their lives meaning and purpose. If you want to kill them softly, remove all responsibilities and empty their functions of any meaningful work.
It was heart-searing to witness and listen to a senior government official and spokesperson tell of how she almost buckled under this pressure and almost went insane.
There is something that dies in all of us when we witness on live TV how a colleague and compatriot was treated in such a persona non grata fashion and, until now, no action was taken against the perpetrator.
The few good people can only wish and pray that Williams has gone for counselling as such naked brutality will clearly push even a right-thinking person very close to disintegration.
In fact, she could not contain her trauma and the judge had to adjourn the hearing.
Although the inquiry is important in that it has generated emotional heat and shed clarity, it remains to be seen how it will help to advance or resolve the plight of courageous apparatchiks who raise concerns about their treatment at the hands of the leadership. Many remain trapped by fear to speak out. And Williams’s tragic story has deep resonance.
No doubt there are heavy dark clouds hanging over our institutions and organisations in the public service, corporate, academia, religious and the NGO sectors, among others.
Now that the veil has been lifted, there is an urgent need for public and corporate leadership to be seen to be doing something. Yes, we need to be seen to be confronting what needs to be addressed and/or changed by first listening to employees.
The Presidential Commission, for instance, has been quite devastating in revealing what people go through in the upper echelons of the public service.
Worse, it has been reported that there is an increase in the number of people suffering from mental illness in the country. A relatively young Mayosi committed suicide.
What is being done except expecting people to carry on with business as usual? What happens to the head of a person who has to suppress and hide his or her abuse and humiliation to keep a cushy position and salary?
South Africans will remain thankful to Williams for her daring and bold stance. While attending the commission took her away from the work environment for a few days, it does not eradicate the precipitating factors.
There is reason and hope to believe that this inquiry has brought us to a turning point. It should mark an immediate beginning for us to focus on helping to create a kind and caring institutional culture.
We cannot afford to allow the non-physical violence that assaults the professional and personal integrity of talented individuals to continue unabated.
The courageous example of Williams and the few others are small but significant steps in the right direction.
They are, again, after decades of struggle, taking the responsibility to transform and heal this country.
* Memela is a writer, cultural critic and public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.