HE department head lodged a complaint against minister

Prior to his suspension on 23 July, the Director-General of South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training, Gwebinkundla Qonde, had lodged a complaint about unfair labour practice and abuse of power against his boss, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande.

The most senior bureaucrat in the department of higher education and training’s contract expires within six weeks.

Qonde, South Africa’s longest-serving director-general in the civil service, lodged the dispute with the General Public Service Sector Bargaining Council two months ago, saying his authority had been undermined by Nzimande, once a close friend.

Qonde is also a member of the South African Communist Party, which has Nzimande as its general secretary.

The bargaining council aims to facilitate healthy labour relations in the public service and help with dispute resolution.

The minister and his director-general have reportedly not been on speaking terms and their relationship has broken down – a state of affairs that has been concerning stakeholders in the higher education sector.

Qonde was suspended on 23 July 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.

But, about two months earlier, on 17 May, Qonde had already complained to the bargaining council of two years of “persistent mistreatment”.

In a letter to the South African Home Affairs Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, who issued the notice of intention to suspend the director-general on 12 July, Qonde said he had raised the issues with President Cyril Ramaphosa, but the matter was not resolved.

Qonde added in the letter that he had taken all steps to prevent irregular expenditure at the NSF but that the minister had allegedly interfered.

He told Motsoaledi that, four hours before receiving the formal notice of his suspension, he had received a letter from the Office of the State Attorney addressed to the bargaining council, saying that his matter had been set down for 13 July.

“On 12 July, approximately four hours prior to receiving the notice [from Motsoaledi], I received a letter from the Office of the State Attorney addressed to the Bargaining Council.

“In the letter, the Office of the State Attorney indicated that the matter had been set down for conciliation on 13 July 2021 and that the matter was not capable of being resolved at conciliation at that stage, thereby requesting a certificate of non-resolution from the Bargaining Council.

“The letter also states that the parties will make attempts to discuss the settlement of the matter. I offer no deductions or interpretations, which can be attached to the events disclosed above, herein,” said Qonde in his letter to Motsoaledi, offering reasons why he should not be suspended.

The state attorney said in the letter to the Bargaining Council that, since the matter could not be resolved at conciliation by the bargaining council, he was requesting a certificate of non-resolution from the council.

This means that the dispute has not been resolved and would have to go to the next level, which is arbitration before the dispute resolution body, the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

He added that he has since asked the council to resolve the matter though arbitration where he and the minister would give evidence and be subjected to cross-examination until it was concluded.

“It is in the midst of this dispute, and with less than two months remaining in my current contract, that I am faced with a possible suspension that will severely damage my reputation over allegations that would unlikely ever be ventilated in a hearing, given the impending ending of my contract,” he wrote.

National Skills Fund

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 NSF received unqualified audit opinions in the 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 financial years. This means that accounting principles were adhered to.

Only during the 2018-19 financial year did the NSF receive a qualified audit opinion, which means that the financial statements contained material misstatements relating to specific amounts, while in 2019-20 it received a disclaimer audit opinion because they may not have been able to decipher the correct nature of some transactions or the office of the Auditor-General could not find enough evidence to support good financial reporting.

Reasons for both decisions about the accounting processes are said to be related to skills development providers not adhering to deadlines and finalising reports timeously.

Furthermore, the NSF, under executive officer Mvuyisi Macikama, experienced chronic delays in the filling of posts, with an average vacancy rate of 57%, leading to the lack of internal project capacity to prepare project information and keep records.

In his reply against the notice of suspension, Qonde added that he had met with the NSF on 13 January 2021 warning management that they had two months left before the end of the financial year to address weaknesses which had led to a disclaimer in the opinion of the Auditor-General.

He also provided a copy of the minutes showing that, as the accounting officer, he had taken the necessary steps to warn the NSF of its obligations.

The NSF planned to procure outside assistance to resolve the challenges.

But the minister then instructed the NSF to stop all tender processes pending the audit review. This was for a service provider to assist with fund management and project management.

Qonde added that these are the very steps that he, as the DG, was required by the Public Finance Management Act to take, but which could not be implemented as a result of the minister’s order.

This, he said, ultimately undermined his authority, effectively prevented him from giving effect to his statutory functions and was the subject of his unfair labour practice dispute before the Bargaining Council.

Asked for comment, the NSF said on 25 July that it could not comment on any matter without the authority of the minister.

In a statement, the ministry said Qonde’s suspension was in terms of the Public Service Act and the SMS handbook, in the wake of a disclaimer audit opinion by the Auditor-General of South Africa.

The Director-General of the Department of Science and Innovation, Phil Mjwara, will act as the director-general of the department of higher education and training until the conclusion of the investigations and any process that may ensue thereafter, the ministry said in a statement. Nzimande is also the minister responsible for this department.