Public works officials 'have perfected the art of avoiding disciplinary hearings' - De Lille tells Scopa

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Minister Patricia de Lille.
Minister Patricia de Lille.
Alon Skuy, Gallo Images, Sunday Times
  • Public works officials implicated in the Beitbridge border fiasco seem hell-bent on stalling their disciplinary hearings.
  • The officials charged in the matter will appear before a disciplinary committee in February.
  • Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille says some officials have perfected the art of evading hearings.

Senior public works officials involved in the R40 million Beitbridge border fence fiasco have resorted to High Court review applications, illness, and pre-approved leave in a bid to either evade or delay disciplinary hearings.

More than a year after they were charged, officials will be hauled before a disciplinary hearing in February 2022.

On Tuesday, Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille and her department's senior officials presented an update on the Beitbridge border matter to Parliament's Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa).

READ | SA's Border Management Authority needs R3bn to pay salaries

Acting Director-General (DG) Imtiaz Fazel told the committee the State Attorney and counsel were instructed to finalise the charges against all the officials tentatively during the first week of February 2021.

"The charges were served to all the officials. The hearing was held on 8 March 2021, wherein parties agreed on the hearing dates of 21 to 24 April 2021 and 4 to 6 May 2021, respectively. A pre-hearing meeting was held on 30 March 2021 between the employer party and the employee parties, and it was agreed that the bundle of documents and index, as well as the list of documents, be served on employee representatives by 6 April 2021," he said.

The hearings of the senior officials were scheduled for May 2021. However, it was postponed due to the failure of the legal representative of one of the officials to attend the hearing.

"This official indicated that he is launching a court application to review the investigation report and the disciplinary enquiry. However, the department argued that the matter should proceed and that the legal representative should be advised to attend the hearing on 5 May, since there is no order interdicting the process and DPWI (Department of Public Works and Infrastructure) has not been cited as a party to the aforementioned intended court application," he said.

A general view of the border fence that separates
A general view of the border fence that separates South Africa and Zimbabwe near the Beitbridge border post.

On 5 May, lawyers for the official served the chairperson and the department with the court application to set aside the investigation report and the disciplinary enquiry.

Scopa chair Mkhuleko Hlengwa warned Fazel to deal with the disciplinary cases in February, failing which he would have to give reasons why he should remain in his job.

"I kid you not. This is increasingly frustrating, and it is creating a perception which you do not want... that you are stalling deliberately on consequence management. So, acting DG, this falls squarely on your shoulders. Make sure that this consequence management is done. We can't be coming back here in February, and you have not concluded on this matter," he said.

Hlengwa said the committee's appetite for tolerance on "the most basic of things in public administration flows right out the window".

"The issues here are clear cut. We can't be speaking to the department on the issue of Beitbridge for over a year," he said.

READ | Case against Beitbridge contractors wrapped up, SIU expert witnesses refuse to testify in fear for lives

"It has become obvious that some of the senior managers in this department have perfected the art of avoiding disciplinary hearings," De Lille said. "They play us with the law, and they interdict the report so that everything has to stop.

"When hearings are scheduled, they are sick, or the chairperson is sick. I hope that the chairperson of the disciplinary proceeds [even] without an implicated official [being present]. They have been playing this for almost two years," De Lille added.

Fazel said after intense engagements, the parties only managed to find a suitable date in February 2022.

"The matter was then postponed finally to 14 to 25 February 2022, with an undertaking by the employee party representatives that all employees will be available and that there will be no further applications for postponements," he said.

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