Table Talk

North West Premier Job Mokgoro explains where it all went wrong

Before taking over the troubled North West province, Professor Job Mokgoro had already distinguished himself as a tough administrator

28 October 2018 - 00:00 By POLOKO TAU

Professor Job Mokgoro's first love was medicine. He was just a year behind his mentor Steve Biko at the University of Natal, where they were both studying to become medical doctors. But then politics happened.
In the end, Biko met his unfortunate death in police custody after Mokgoro had been expelled from the university.
"I was accused of . did they say nearly killed? No, they said assault with grievous bodily harm of three security police officers and I was jailed for a year," he says. But did he really assault anyone?
"I was in the crime scene somewhere," he says with a sheepish smile that suggests he wishes not to be interrogated further on the matter.
His medical career was ruined and he went on to study science for his first degree but in the end he graduated with a master's in public administration from the University of Toledo in the US. This was the beginning of the man who would later become a veteran administrator, an academic and a struggle activist who held several positions in the ANC's policy and advisory units.
But in tense situations, even people like him are not spared the wrath of the public.
Earlier this year, just weeks before violent protests erupted across the capital city of the North West, Mahikeng, with communities calling for the removal of the then premier Supra Mahumapelo, Mokgoro found himself caught in the crossfire.
He was barred by striking health workers from entering his office at the province's school of governance, where he was an adviser.
Mokgoro tried in vain to explain to the striking workers that despite his office being on the same premises, he did not work for the health department, but they would not buy it. Determined to do his work for the day, the 70-year-old approached police officers on site. He was expecting their intervention "but instead, they lectured me on the constitution".
Mokgoro says he was told the workers were within their right to strike and there was nothing the police could do. Feeling defeated but determined to keep his office going despite the chaos in the province, Mokgoro went back home and set up an office there from which he worked for the next weeks.
Then came the day Mahikeng was plunged into total chaos, with properties including public buildings burnt and businesses looted.
What was going on in Mokgoro's mind at the time?
"I was ranting and raving at appropriate level. I was informing, talking to and raising my concerns with relevant authorities in the province, and my fear and my concern was that things were reaching a state of helplessness . it was very frustrating," he says.
All thoughts were on the bad situation at the time but very little on who would succeed Mahumapelo if the public outcry was heard and he stepped down.
Mokgoro never thought the finger would point to him to be the new premier.
Eventually Mahumapelo resigned in May, with several lists being circulating on social media platforms with the names of possible successors.
"I realised there were different groupings in and outside the ANC that had candidates other than myself and my view was, I was interested in the stability of the province and not any other thing that would be personal. My interest was whichever way I could contribute to the stability of the province, and I was able to do so, I would do so," Mokgoro says.
Then came a call from ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. The next morning, late in June, he was at Luthuli House, where the announcement was made that he would be the next premier. Back in Mahikeng that evening, he sat down and prepared his acceptance speech for the next day.
"Surprise as it [his appointment] was, the reality of the matter is the province was in turmoil, it needed somebody to get it out of that morass, [and] it so happened that the finger of the ANC pointed at me. In a disciplined fashion I had to respond," Mokgoro says. When all was done and he was officially the sixth (and oldest) premier of the North West, his life was "suddenly thrown into a tailspin. I guess the rest is history."
Years before that, Mokgoro had stayed in Mahikeng when he was a lecturer at the then University of Bophuthatswana, but his political consciousness would not let him stay in the bantustan.
Twenty-four years ago, then ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa deployed Mokgoro to Bophuthatswana after its late president, Lucas Mangope, was forced to loosen his grip on the bantustan amid violent protests. Together with Tjaart van der Walt, who had been SA's ambassador to Bophuthatswana, he became co-administratorof what would later become the North West province.
Mokgoro says his mandate was to "go to Bophuthatswana, normalise, stabilise, make the environment ready for elections, suspend the Bophuthatswana constitution and govern the province through decrees . and I did exactly that".
By the time the province's first premier, Popo Molefe, and his executive arrived, Mokgoro had everything set up. "I had done a thorough policy audit and I had a complete handover report for them."
Molefe later appointed Mokgoro the province's first director-general after the 1994 general elections.
Throughout the interview, Mokgoro avoids referring to Mahumapelo by name, referring to him only as "my predecessor.
Asked if, as has been suggested by the political opposition, he was not part of the Mahumapelo administration accused of pushing the province to near collapse, Mokgoro says: "I came at the invitation of my predecessor to help in restructuring departments and in the process I was asked to act as DG for a year. I acted between June 2014 and around May 2015. I must be judged on the basis of that period."
Where there are accusations made in which he is implicated, he says: "Proof must be provided."
"One of the areas that is highly criticised would be Nepo Data Dynamics [a company dubiously appointed to manage most of the Mahumapelo administration projects]. I was not involved."
Mokgoro says it is not as if he had kept quiet when things were going wrong.
"For things I would have advised on or opposed, there was no need for me to stand on a mountain. When you advise, you advise to principle within the system, you don't throw your toys and start making noise. I must be judged for what I did and evidence must be provided."
Mokgoro believes that what went wrong was "implementing instructions without questioning". His thought is "to have more visible and active leadership at all levels. There should have been more effective leadership at political levels, but I think the orientation there was to take instruction and implement without engagement. Implementing without engaging with the instructions has been a serious problem.
"What I thought was disastrous [is that] administrative leadership feels that when [they are] in the same room with political leadership, they are not allowed to express themselves. That's what they told me because I reprimanded them, I objected to both political and administrative leadership when I was just an adviser. I said that's not on," Mokgoro says. "They told me they are not allowed to express themselves."
"We have too many yes-men and -women. I want people who are prepared to engage professionally, who are prepared to research and come up with options. I don't want yes-men and -women."
He remembers the MECs during the Molefe era.
"MECs then were very robust at debates. You could not fool those people, you could not just bring a submission and it is passed without debate," he says.
As DG then, Mokgoro says he would "not stand any nonsense other than excellence". He is still remembered by workers at the Garona building, which used to be government headquarters in Mahikeng, as the strictest DG ever. There was no knocking off early on payday or Fridays in his day.
"I would not allow employees to knock off early. I would go to lifts and turn back women with their bags wanting to leave. If I gave an instruction on Friday at noon and you told me you had four hours left and I wanted it on Monday, I would tell you that you had Saturday and Sunday to do my work and submit it on Monday," he says.
This is the kind of DG he was, but how does Mokgoro intend to turn the troubled North West around?
After taking the helm, Mokgoro says, he soon realised he was leading a province with communities "that are badly bruised, extremely disappointed, very angry at government and the ANC, and it was important to restore trust".
"My first responsibility was to ensure I find some mechanism for restoring trust and I realised that the way I was to go about may result in empty talk. It was critical for me to make sure as I embark on a road show to take civil servants along. I got my team to work on a plan so I could embark on a public campaign to remind public servants about Batho Pele and re-emphasise its values and principles," he says.
"Simultaneously, I had to identify some things I would do with the support of the public service that would begin to assure the communities that indeed a new order was emerging.
"And because the province had already been placed under administration - something unprecedented in the history of this country - whatever I chose to do had to be done within the framework of the interministerial task team (IMTT) led by minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma."
It appears it has not been easy working alongside the IMTT, but Mokgoro says it had to be done.
"From time to time one would realise there were certain things that you would like to embark on as a matter of extreme urgency, and it is only when you are on the way to implementation that you realise, by the way, I am under administration. Liaising, consulting, checking with the IMTT is necessary, but often frustrating in the sense that it pulls you back. But it is the nature of the business," he says.
"It is not that I have anything against the IMTT, it's just that you are in the spotlight and need to deliver, but your own moral conscience places that imperative to deliver, and as you do that you realise you burn your fingers in the process because you have to respect those protocols."
Instead of marking 100 days in office, Mokgoro, who will be holding the fort as premier until the national elections next year, has instead introduced three rounds of 100 days in office. He has already gone through the first period.
In order to make his term of office a success, Mokgoro says he has told his finance and planning units: "Let us look at our annual plans, let's look at the projects and programmes and ask ourselves; are they in line with the National Development Plan?
"We have established that we are actually 100% on course."
The premier says he has established a special team to ensure implementation takes place.
"With that, my approach is not of promising the 3.8-million people that we'll do this, we'll do that. Tense is a very important matter for me. It is not futuristic; we're using present continuous tense and saying to our people, we are ." he says.
"Ultimately, my approach to eliminating what has been a trust deficit between the people and government is to actually in a practical sense [correct it all] through these 300 days."
Then came another development. Soon after he was appointed premier, Luthuli House once again entrusted the tested administrator with leading the ANC as convener of the provincial task team after the disbandment of Mahumapelo's provincial executive committee. This came with additional and challenging responsibilities.
Mokgoro is expected to save the North West from passing out of the grasp of the ANC come the elections next year.
"Work on elections strategy has already begun and in between I do government work," he says.
"With the campaign accelerating, it is going to be hectic but I am psychologically prepared . not expecting it to be an easy task, but somebody has to do it."
• Born in 1948 in Kimberley in the Northern Cape, Job Mokgoro is married to former Constitutional Court justice Yvonne Mokgoro.
• He served in the ANC economic policy department.
• He was director-general of the South African Management Development Institute between 1999 and January 2003.
• Until his appointment as premier, he was a visiting professor at Wits University's graduate school of public and development management.

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