Newsmaker – Peggy Nkonyeni is ready

2013-10-14 08:00

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MEC puts Amigos scandal behind her to focus on schools

Neliswa Peggy Nkonyeni (53) has a strange sense of calm about her for a woman who has just inherited KwaZulu-Natal’s strike-ridden education department two weeks ahead of the matric exams in an election season.

But then again, she’s faced worse. While she was a co-accused in the high-profile Amigos corruption and fraud trial, her children had to “go to school and analyse a cutting from a newspaper (that dealt) with me”.

“The Amigos allegations really hurt. It has really tarnished my reputation. Going to court for a criminal case is not a nice thing. It is difficult to convince people that you are innocent. It was tough. More so for my kids. They have really been subjected to trauma.”

She’s also been on the sharp end in government before, during her stint as MEC for health, when she was flayed for unauthorised expenditure.

Whatever the reason, Nkonyeni is remarkably calm about the “cuts” she will have to continue to make to run the department she’s taken over from ANC KwaZulu-Natal chairperson and newly elected premier Senzo Mchunu.

Nkonyeni’s first couple of days in office have been tough. Mchunu handed over in three hours and sessions with his top management followed.

At her first education portfolio committee meeting, she found out that R155 million earmarked for books had been diverted to get members of the organisation she was once a part of, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, back to work during the trial exams.

“At the portfolio committee, I learnt about most of the issues in the department and its strengths and weaknesses. I understand there is a projection of overexpenditure. We will have to try to cut some of the programmes. It is very unfortunate,” says Nkonyeni.

But she’s “encouraged” by offers of “serious” assistance with computers and other materials she received on Wednesday night from the Minara Chamber of Commerce, an Islamic business organisation.

She plans to meet the unions and other stakeholders as a priority and will be making a submission at the council of education ministers to try to get Treasury to cough up funding to meet the teacher-pay increases in terms of government’s occupation-specific dispensation (OSD).

“This is a recurring challenge – I faced it in health as well – where there is a gap between the increases in terms of OSD and what money is made available.”

Nkonyeni survived being charged in the Amigos trial, but the reputation damage remains. She and fellow ANC provincial leader Mike Mabuyakhulu were charged over a R1 million bribe allegedly paid to the ANC by Uruguayan businessman Gaston Savoi.

But Moipone Noko, KwaZulu-Natal’s director of public prosecutions, notoriously overturned her predecessor’s decision to go to trial. She withdrew charges against Mabuyakhulu and Nkonyeni.

“My family was happy about the appointment, but they said: ‘As soon as you are appointed, the Amigos thing will come up again.’ It has. They are not very comfortable.”

Nkonyeni has serious ANC pedigree, although while she was an activist and teacher she had no real interest in leaving the profession for public office.

She was introduced to politics by her late husband, businessman and ANC south coast stalwart Reynold Nkonyeni.

A contemporary of Siyabonga Cwele, the late George Mbhele and Bheki Cele, Rey was Mbhele’s deputy when he chaired the first ANC lower south coast region in the early 1990s.

A serious heavy hitter in the ANC in the province, Rey preferred to be a backroom operator. When the ANC took over Port Shepstone and Margate, they named Gamalakhe township’s main street after him.

“For some reason, Rey didn’t like to be in the forefront. He was the kind of person who liked to stay in the background and didn’t want to go to the legislature. But Rey lobbied for me,” recalls Nkonyeni.

The couple paid a high price for their political activism. In 1995, their 10-year-old daughter, Xoliswa, was killed in her sleep when an M26 hand grenade was thrown into her bedroom at their home. It was an attack during the political war still raging at that time between the ANC and the IFP.

Nkonyeni, then a history teacher, survived another attack at work at the rural Mbambi Secondary School, forcing her to move to Olwandle High School in the relative “safety” of Gamalakhe.

Their Gamalakhe house, its walls lined with improvised sandbags, which they made using plastic shopping bags, provided refuge for a large number of activists fleeing attacks in nearby rural areas.

“Those were tough times,” she recalls. “People came because it was safer than other areas. We would have up to 50 people sleeping in the three-bedroomed house.”

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