When ‘personal views’ of Politicians overlap into their ‘official capacity’

A while back I warned Congress of the People Spokesperson Phillip Dexter of his continued commentary written on his ‘personal capacity’ as quite dangerous.

In January this year, I wrote in my Facebook status that: “Phillip Dexter does not write a commentary without mentioning Mbhazima Shilowa, in a bad way nogal. Is that ‘Cult of Personality’ or ‘Personalisation of Politics’? To me that does not make any difference whether he writes on an ‘official’ or ‘personal capacity’”.

I had to voice my frustration with Dexter because at the time I found his comments on Politicsweb unprofessional as they all the time read like an attack Shilowa as the leader of the other faction of the failed-party.

In his response to my comments Dexter justified his attack on Shilowa saying “that’s because he does wrong things all the time! I tell it like it is, whether you like it or not.”

I have always found it problematic when politicians especially those occupying higher positions in political parties write commentary or articles which I found not as different even if they had been written from an ‘official capacity’ in their parties.

Just earlier that day, I had also mentioned in my Facebook status that: “Methinks there’s NO DIFFERENCE NOR DOES THERE SEEM TO BE GOING TO BE ANY when politicians (Phillip Dexter, Jackson Mthembu, Mosioa Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa, Jacob Zuma, Siphiwe Nyanda, Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Helen Zille) write commentary/articles on an official capacity or ‘in their own personal capacity’ because such views are formed from their knowing something on a particular ‘capacity’”.

That there is not much of a difference whether politicians write on their personal and or on official capacity makes no difference is now confirmed by media reports that a controversial legal advice Paul Ngobeni to the Defense Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has been suspended. Ngobeni’s now official suspension was confirmed in a statement by the Ndivhuwo Mabaya, a Head of Media Services in the Ministry of Defense and Military Veterans.

The said suspension comes after Ngobabi’s bitter letter to former Finance Minster and now Minster in the Presidency for the Planning Commission Trevor Manuel in the City Press newspaper last week in which he called Manuel a “veritable bang-broek”. This follows Manuel’s Manuel’s open letter government spokesperson and CEO GCIS, Jimmy Manyi, after the later was reported saying there was an “over-supply” of coloured people in the Western Cape province and that they should “spread” around the country.

Manyi reportedly said this at the time when he was still Director-general at the Department of Labour and Black Management Forum President early last year.

In his letter to Manyi, Manuel said the former’s “statements about ‘an over-concentration of coloureds’ [were] against the letter and spirit of the South African Constitution, as well as being against the values espoused by the Black Management Forum (BMF) since its inception.” Manuel said that that Manyi said this at the time when he was president of the BMF was “quite a mystery”. “It is a mystery because I must assume that you were elected as president of the BMF, without any familiarity with the history and constitution of that organisation; and that you were appointed as director-general of the Department of Labour, without any familiarity with the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa or the legislation administered by the department”.

In his defense of Manyi, Ngobeni wrote that “truth be told”, Manuel and his “motley crew of coloured politicians have arrogated to (themselves) the exclusive monopoly to speak or comment on issues pertaining to coloureds”. Ngobeni went on to say many things to Manuel which I found quite awful, irresponsible and ugly. This because the letter read as bitter as gall of an animal. The full letter can be found here.

In his announcing Ngobeni’s suspension Mabaya said since the publication of the letter about two weeks ago at the time of writing Sisulu has since “initiated an internal investigation and also received an apology from Mr. Ngobeni indicating he had written in his personal capacity expressing his personal views and have never intended that the Minister’s office should be drawn into the matter”.

From this it would seem that Ngobeni wrote the letter not taking into account the effect and tone of the contents of his letter would have on his ‘official capacity’ as legal adviser to Sisulu. This, I believe, was quite negligence on his part. Further, this is something I have warned Dexter of because I believed sometimes it is difficult to read between a statement written on ‘personal capacity’ and on ‘official capacity’ except when one of the two statuses is mentioned at the end of the said expressed opinion.

That Ngobeni apologised for his comments because he thought he was writing or “expressing his personal views” was very short-sighted of him. As someone who works for the defense force and taking his background into account, he should have known better. Still, I do not believe his claim that he “never intended that the Minister’s office should be drawn unto the [Manual vs. Manyi] matter” is true. Further, that Ngobeni only saw fit to extend his apology for the “embarrassment” of his letter to the President of the Republic, Jacob Zuma and the Minister [Sisulu] and not Manuel himself is evidently clear that he certainly does not regret having said what he said in his open letter to Manuel. Not one bit.

That Manyi used his Deputy CEO Vusi Mona in conveying his uncalled for apology for his “over-supply” comments on coloured people also caused a stir in the country. This because it was seen as disrespectful as many expected his ‘unreservedly’ apology as was claimed by Mona that he did.

In the allegedly apology, Manyi through Mona, said he was “guided by the constitutional assertion that South Africa belongs to all who live in it – this undoubtedly includes the coloured community”. I wonder, though, if he ever thought of this before he opened his mouth. “Mr. Manyi’s comments a year ago sought to underscore the fact that the coloured community forms part of the whole South African nation, and he suggested that coloured people could take up opportunities beyond the boundaries of the Western Cape”, said Mona in a statement allegedly said to be Manyi’s apology.

To indicate that Manyi’s apology was not as genuine as Mona claimed, Manyi claimed he acknowledged that the “offence was taken as people interpreted his statement a year ago”. This, if you ask me, does not read let alone sound like an “unreserved” apology as both Manyi and Mona claimed because the statement tries to justify why there was an uproar over the comments in the first place. “For this he [Manyi] apologises unreservedly…”

Reading between Manyi’s and Ngobeni’s alleged apology – it is quite clear to see that the said apologies are not directed to the people the comments were first director (Manyi’s to Coloured communities and Ngobeni’s to Manuel). Instead, both apologies are quite vague and do not state categorically if their comments were ill-informed and if they still stood by their comments or not. This irrespective of what ‘capacity’ they were speaking or writing from at that time – whether ‘personal’ or official’.

Despite the ANC distancing itself from Manyi’s “over-supply” comments and accepting his apology and later the government not bowing to public and opposition party pressure to sacking  Manyi – the Defense has however took a totally different position. The Minister and the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans have confirmed that “they [were] not part of this public letter and have never been consulted or informed of the letters”. As a result, the minister has “distance(d) herself from the open letter and all its content”, said Mona in statement.

To many observers it was and still is quite a surprise and does not make sense how it was possible for government not to suspend Manyi over what was seen as racist remarks while it was easy for Minister Sisulu to suspend Ngobeni “from all duties with full pay for a period of thirty days” for his bitter letter to Manuel. To show how serious this issue is, the minister in addition to the suspension “requested [Ngobeni] to submit written reasons why he should not be released from his duties as the legal advisor to the Minister”.

To me seems quite clear – but of course not to Dexter though – that there is indeed a relationship between views/opinions/comments politicians express in their ‘personal capacity’ and those that they may still express in their ‘official capacity’.

Given this correlation it is not clear if politicians like Dexters of this world will continue to “tell it like it is, whether you like it or not”. Or like Dexter said, maybe we should let him “say so until the CNC tells me to stop”. That, I hope happens before he falls on the same trap as Ngobeni did: having to face suspension and asked to “to submit written reasons why he should not be released from his duties” of whatever position he thinks he occupies in COPE.

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