25 May 2024 | 12:16 AM

Minister asked to revoke language board’s dismissals

Key Takeaways

A board member of the crisis-torn Pan South African Language Board (Pansalb) has begged Parliament to help reverse the “insensitive and unpatriotic” mass sacking of employees and asked Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa to remove the body’s acting chief executive with immediate effect.

In a letter to the parliamentary arts and culture committee, University of Cape Town academic Abner Nyamende alleges that acting chief executive Zixolisile Feni is an “angry person” driven by the desire for revenge against staff members appointed by a previous management regime.

In his letter, Nyamende complains that the 49 dismissals ordered by the language board on November 29 last year were in violation of the relevant legislation.

“Section 8 of the Pansalb Act contains three pages of ‘the powers and functions of the board’ and dismissing a staff member is not one of these,” he says.

He argues that the board accepted all the appointments at the time they were made by Mxolisi Zwane, the caretaker chief executive installed by former arts minister Paul Mashatile in 2010 in an effort to turn around the allegedly dysfunctional organisation.

Objecting that the board had dismissed “49 souls who have done no harm whatsoever to the organisation”, Nyamende stresses that they are breadwinners and that South Africa “is stricken with poverty which haunts the majority of its citizens”.

At a session in March this year Parliament’s arts committee also allegedly questioned the legal advice sought by Feni on the validity of the employment contracts.

Employees are a political football

One committee member observed that there should have been a more humane approach because the workers were people with families.

Through their union, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, the employees are challenging their dismissal in the Labour Court.

The union’s spokesperson, Sizwe Pamla, attacked their “blatant victimisation” and complained that they were a political football in a battle between Mashatile and the language board.

The board annulled the contracts in December last year, claiming that Zwane’s appointment had not been endorsed by the board, as required, and that all appointments during his term were invalid.

Feni told amaBhungane last week that under Zwane, salaries had come to consume 72% of the language board’s parliamentary allocation.

Acting chief executive is “an angry person”

Nyamende offered an alternative interpretation, saying that Feni was suspended more than once during Zwane’s tenure “and is therefore an angry person who wants to get back at people who were employed during Mr Zwane’s tenure”.

“He has about nine cases still outstanding at the Labour Court that have cost Pansalb and is therefore not neutral and positive in his actions.”

Nyamende also challenged the legality of Feni’s appointment late last year, saying the Act made no provision for an acting chief executive.

He told the parliamentary committee that the acting chief ­executive was “one of the staff members who were leading in fuelling the unhealthy climate between the new and the old staff” and that he was using the board to fight factional battles.

Not nepotism

In an interview this week, Zwane strongly denied suggestions of nepotism in the disputed appointments, saying that all the employees had been through a selection process by a human resources committee in which he played no part.

“Every South African has the right to a fair dismissal. If they were ­dismissed they have a right to challenge; if they were retrenched there should have been consultation with their union.”

The language board’s mandate is to promote multilingualism and language rights and Zwane said that under him the organisation “was out there”.

“We turned this place around; we worked with the universities, traditional leaders,” Zwane said.

“Since I stepped down in June last year it has done nothing except chase employees away.”

Responding, Feni said that no one had been sacked – the board had merely disregarded employment contracts that had no legal force.

He denied that personal motives had any bearing on the dismissals: “I don’t take my own decision[s]; I take my tune from the board. The board had a fiduciary duty to an organisation that is battling financially.”

“He has about nine cases still outstanding at the Labour Court that have cost Pansalb and is therefore not neutral and positive in his actions”.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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