Intellectual heritage at risk

2008-10-22 00:00

The management and finances of “the leading national library and information centre of excellence in Africa and the world” — the National Library of South Africa (NLSA) — are in such utter shambles that two prominent members of the board’s finance committee have resigned in protest.

Employees tell a disturbing story of neglect and abuse at one of the prime symbols of South Africa’s intellectual heritage. They tell of a chief executive who spends every possible moment travelling the world on freebies and proclaims that he is “not an operational man”. They tell of a marketing manager who does almost no marketing and of a chief financial officer who does very little financial management.

The two board members who have resigned are its former chairperson Andrew Mestern, BP South Africa’s treasury manager, and Dr Martie van Deventer of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Mestern had served on the board for five years. The two confirmed that they have written to Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan, giving reasons for their resignations, but refused to discuss the affairs of the National Library any further.

Jordan’s office says the minister intends launching an investigation into the affairs of the NLSA.

Approached for comment, Khehla Moloi says the allegations could only come from “white racists” (most of noseweek’s sources are not white). “People who make this allegation represent the old order which subjected our people to … discrimination, but since the arrival of the new CEO, management of the NLSA has been transformed to represent the demographics of South Africa. There are some people who think if an institution is run by blacks everything collapses. These sinister forces have tried unsuccessfully to sabotage the normal operation of the library but have failed. They have now run to the media as dying horses,” says Moloi.

In terms of the National Library of South Africa Act, the library is controlled by a board, the members of which are appointed by the Minister of Arts and Culture, from a short list drawn up by an advisory panel after a call for public nominations. Its chief executive officer, or national librarian, is an ex-officio member of the board. Jordan appointed the current board for the period October 1, 2006, to September 30, 2009.

According to the act, the board has a large degree of autonomy. It formulates the policies of the library (in consultation with the minister), approves its budget, appoints the chief executive officer, management team and other employees, and determines the remuneration and benefits of its employees.

Yet, despite the central role envisioned for it, and a huge responsibility for ensuring the library’s efficient functioning, the board did not meet at all between July 2007 and August 2008. (There was a meeting in December 2007, but too few members attended to form a quorum.) Before the current board was appointed, the National Library was without a board for a full eight months.

When the board finally met in August, Mestern and Van Deventer had resigned in protest. The new chairman of the board, Professor Gessler Moses Muxe Nkondo, is the disgraced former vice-chancellor of Venda University who was forced to pay back money he spent on a credit card he had obtained illegally. He also lied about his PhD.

The National Library consists of two campuses that became one entity in 1999 — the former State Library in Pretoria and the National Library in Cape Town. The new R375 million Pretoria library building, opened by Jordan on August 1, can accommodate 1 300 visitors and houses two million books, with the capacity for another three-and-a-half million. Currently, only half of the building is operational and it is understaffed

John Tsebe, former librarian at the University of the North, became the national librarian in 2004.

“He told staff we were going to do great things. He said, ‘My door is open, the buck stops with me’. Tsebe has become a self-important man, more interested in scoring free trips … than in running the NLSA,” a senior employee tells noseweek.

Another senior employee adds: “Tsebe likes to say he is responsible for the vision and strategies and not for operational issues, which means he hobnobs with the elite and jumps on a plane whenever he can. He has taken the concept of hands-off management to new extremes.”

Staff at both campuses of the National Library complain of the almost complete collapse of administrative structures over the past two years. Things have fallen apart to such an extent that management meetings hardly ever take place, a staff member tells noseweek.

“The staff morale is at an ultimate low. People clock in and out, simply waiting for their pay cheques. There is a culture of fear among employees. We know what Tsebe, Andrew Malotle and their cabal will do if we speak out.”

Staff and library users tell of more and more books, documents and papers (some extremely valuable) simply disappearing — either stolen or misfiled. And the vitally important procurement department is no longer ensuring that all books published in the country are deposited with the library. Researchers are increasingly having to visit university libraries to consult new works.

It is the financial mismanagement of the National Library that led to the recent resignations. One of Moloi’s own colleagues says that, for 2007-2008, Moloi didn’t draw up a proper budget with new financial forecasts. He simply used the previous year’s budget and added 10%. When the financial committee complained about his work, Moloi sent an angry e-mail to board members and senior management saying the chairman of that committee had an axe to grind.

Each year since 2003-2004 the Auditor General (AG) has reported that “an accounting policy addressing the classification, disclosure and valuations of the book collections has not been approved by the board”. The AG also declared that “... an audit of the book collections at the National Library revealed that books are in a poor condition and that the storage facilities utilised for book collections appear to be inadequately equipped to ensure proper preservation”.

In 2006-07 the AG declared that he couldn’t express an opinion on certain expenditure as some documentation was missing. The AG pointed out that the National Library did not have the required level of funds to match the liability of post-retirement medical aid benefits, which amounted to R14,8 million. The annual report for 2007-08 has been given to the minister but not released for public consumption.

In 2006, a senior member of the financial management team was accused of stealing R25 000 by transferring library funds into his own account and drawing the interest on it. The matter is still being investigated by the police.

• This article appears in the October edition of noseweek.

Response from senior managers

Senior managers at the National Library have strongly denied every allegation by a whole range of people about the leadership and management of the institution.

The national librarian, John Tsebe, was recovering from hospital treatment when noseweek approached him, so the head of marketing, Andrew Malotle, spoke on his behalf: “Since Mr John Tsebe joined the National Library of South Africa, much has been achieved, including realisation of the dream to build the new National Library.

“Mr Tsebe focused on strategic plan and diversity management workshops in order to turn the staff into a unified force. Staff of the old dispensation who resisted change became disgruntled and started trying to destroy the National Library with malicious statements to the media.”

The chief financial officer, Khehla Moloi, responding to allegations of mismanagement, said: “The financial management and control of the library are in a sound position wherein monthly expenditure is controlled against the budget per each division. The surplus for 2006-2007 amounted to R4,6 million with committed funds amounting to R2,8 million, leaving us with a sound liquidity of around R1,8 million. There has not been any cent which the AG found unaccounted for.”

On the allegations that there was no proper financial forecast and comprehensive budget for 2007-2008 budget: “There is a fully fledged comprehensive budget which managers use to allow them to operate on a daily basis. Managers obtain their financial reports monthly or anytime they want them.”

Concerning management collapse and allegations that management meetings are not held regularly: “Management meet regularly, not even monthly as is the norm, to discuss and plan operational and strategic issues.”

On the local front

Christopher Merrett

The doors of learning and culture shall be opened, declared the Freedom Charter in 1955. They lead straight into South Africa’s national library collections, which are both a national heritage and a source of information for citizens exercising their civil rights.

It’s for this reason that a copy of every book, magazine and newspaper published in South Africa must be lodged with its five legal deposit libraries: the National Library’s Pretoria and Cape Town branches, the Library of Parliament, and the municipal libraries in Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg. This has been a requirement of the Copyright Act since the fifties.

These collections should be accessible to all South Africans, so failure of legal deposit libraries to collect, catalogue, preserve and make available copyright material is a serious breach of duty, although administering such huge collections is an expensive business. In the past the State Library, predecessor of the National Library of South Africa (NLSA), led the way, compiling the national bibliography — the complete inventory of this country’s publications.

The current situation, John Morrison, Msunduzi Municipal Library manager, believes, “is reasonably well controlled”. The legal deposit libraries are compiling a joint online catalogue. The Millenium database and custodianship of the national heritage is now “a shared effort in which libraries support each other”. Msunduzi had a head start having co-operated with the local university library in a computerised cataloguing project over many years.

So nationally, Morrison argues, “the long-term prospects are bright”, but what about Msunduzi Municipal Library’s legal deposit section? Housed in the building’s basement, it is currently undergoing a R20 million face-lift funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the local authority. This will see its storage capacity doubled through the installation of compactus shelving. Seating capacity will be expanded to accommodate 40 users comfortably.

Modern environmental control technology will improve the long-term preservation outlook of the material in the library’s care. Modern scanning equipment will ensure that copies can be made without damaging fragile and precious resources like newspapers. And there will be Braille and other aids for the blind and partially sighted.

It all adds up to a better-managed collection and an improved service to the people of KwaZulu-Natal. But to complete the picture, Morrison and the library’s staff are looking forward to welcoming and assisting serious researchers.

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