Qonde takes Blade to court to clear his name
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Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande escaped the axe during a Cabinet reshuffle by President Cyril Ramaphosa, Thursday night.
But he is not yet out of the woods, following allegations of financial mismanagement and breaking procurement processes levelled against him by suspended Director-General Gwebinkundla Qonde.
Rival politicians have been sharpening their knives against Nzimande, more so after the 202-page affidavit challenging the suspension in the Johannesburg Labour Court.
Qonde laid bare alleged abuse by Nzimande in violating procurement regulations for the purchase of laptops for university students via the National Student’s Financial Aid Scheme.
Ramaphosa is the third respondent in the case involving Qonde. So far, the president has not acted on the claims by the man who is South Africa’s longest-serving director-general in the civil service. Qonde’s contract ends on September 6.
Since the president is responsible for the career incidents of all director-generals by law, as prescribed in the Public Service Act, he (Ramaphosa) has delegated responsibility for overseeing the relevant processes related to Qonde to Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, who issued the notice of intention to suspend Qonde on July 12.
Motsoaledi is the second respondent in the case.
Qonde said in his court papers that he had previously raised the issues about what could effectively be describe as workplace bullying, with Ramaphosa. But he received no joy from the president.
Instead, last month, on July 23, Qonde was suspended as a precautionary measure on pending a forensic investigation into the National Skills Fund (NSF), after the Auditor-General of South Africa noted inadequate financial reporting in their annual report.
Two months earlier, on May 17, Qonde had complained to the bargaining council of two years of “persistent mistreatment” by Nzimande, “which effectively relegated me and diminished my authority”.
In opposing his suspension, Qonde said during this dispute, with less than two months remaining on his contract, he was faced with a suspension that would damage his reputation over allegations that would unlikely ever be ventilated in a hearing, given his contract was almost over.
In his letter to Motsoaledi, Qonde said that, under him as accounting officer, the Department of Higher Education and Training received unqualified audit opinions in the past five years, while the National Skills Fund received unqualified audit opinions in the 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 financial years. He added that he had taken the necessary steps to warn the NSF of its obligations.
On Friday, the Presidency said it would abide by the decision of the court and file an explanatory affidavit to address facts raised by Qonde in his foundation affidavit.
In a bad week for Nzimande, he was severely criticised by suspended ANC member Carl Niehaus and branded a “former IFP operative pseudo communist”. Worse was to follow the with the EFF accusing Nzimande of being corrupt and demanding his immediate removal from the office over allegations of financial mismanagement. But Ramaphosa has given the SACP General-Secretary, who likes to portray himself as a “champion of the poor”, a stay of execution.
While Qonde’s allegations are yet to play out in court, the EFF said in a statement that Nzimande was known for intimidation, and that the claims against him were not surprising.
The country’s third largest official opposition party accused Nzimande of abusing his position to frivolously remove individuals from Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETA) to siphon money to entities closely linked to him and those he places in strategic positions.
“Blade Nzimande is a callous and corrupt factionalist, whose only purpose in government is to defend the interests of those who secure his ministerial position. In the wake of a deadly pandemic, he joins the long list of ministers who have tried to use the emergency procurement process to further theft. He has no regard for accountability, and is completely disinterested in running an open and accountable sector.
“Nzimande has turned what ought to be a developmental sector into his fiefdom, thriving at insults, evasion and taking public platforms to ridicule students,” the EFF said.
It was not the first time political rivals have taken exception to Nzimande’s management of the higher education portfolio. Earlier this year, Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) demanded that Nzimande resign for belittling the genuine struggle for access to education by students. “His fickle dismissive remarks equating the student struggle to a soap opera is reminiscent of one Marie Antoinette. The consequences of such irresponsible comments may yet come to haunt him.”
“If anything, this communist minister should hang his head in shame because students are essentially fighting an austerity programme that has led to cuts in essential services, such as education…these cuts make it necessary for students and communities to fight for service delivery on a regular basis against deteriorating conditions and exclusion from services in the public sector,” he said.
But Ramaphosa did not heed the detractors during his Cabinet reshuffle, standing by the much-maligned Nzimande who remains a vital cog in the tripartite alliance, despite is diminishing influence.
Ironically, Qonde and Nzimande are no longer talking despite being current SACP comrades and former friends. The frosty relationship was formally unveiled in correspondence between former Deputy Director-General: University Education Dr Diane Parker, who was forced out of the role she had performed admirably since 2008 when Nzimande accused her of insubordination.
Many staff members said there was a toxic environment in the higher education department because of Nzimande’s alleged interference. He has also insulted the director-general publicly over the past two years – a claim corroborated by Qonde’s submission to the Labour Court.
Parker left at the end of January 2021, a year before she was due to retire. She is currently a Special Projects Adviser at the University of Pretoria.
But her departure was not without drama. In a letter to her on May 28, 2020, Nzimande accused her of misconduct with a charge of insubordination relating to her allegedly not preparing a document relating to the procurement of laptops.
She said, in a letter that, in a conversation with him on March 25, 2020, Nzimande had asked her if she was in support of him as minister, to which she reaffirmed her backing. It was during this discussion, Nzimande raised concerns about her but there was no specific transgression brought to her attention.
In the same meeting, Parker and Nzimande raised the “difficult situation” in the department because of the tenuous relationship between Nzimande and Qonde. She said that this impacted on the work of the department, particularly, in light of the fact that she, and other DDGs reported to the DG as a line manager, and the parallel processes made it difficult with members of the minister’s office sending out directives to various members of her staff instead of utilising the DG’s office as per the norm.
Parker denied the allegations of misconduct, expressed shock at the minister attacking her integrity, hard work and commitment.
A month before his departure, the troubles between Nzimande and Qonde, threatens to undermine the much-proclaimed “good work” under the minister, whose tenure seems riddled instead with one crisis after another that his poor public relations team cannot undo because his ego won’t allow it.