Mixing politics and safety. 26 November 2009.
IT's not the most comfortable position, but in the interests of duty and your reading pleasure, I'm writing this while sitting in my car, laptop plugged into the cigarette lighter via an inverter. An electrical pole on the street corner has been shooting fire for the past half hour; it's burnt right to the top. And as to the sound effects - it has been high noon in the platteland. We now await the knights in their white bakkies who should come riding into town any minute to rescue us. In the meantime, sensible people have switched off their computers and are enjoying a siesta. The guys who earn their living repairing our electrical connections are the heroes of this little dorp - Smithfield. We have a more tenuous link to the national grid than most Free State villages, and when the wind picks up or dark clouds gather on the mountain, we are immediately powerless. Then in stride the fixers, sometimes late at night or during ferocious storms, come and connect us to the rest of the world again. I was thinking about them just last week as I sat in the Supreme Court of Appeal. It was Monday, November 16, official anniversary of the founding of Pretoria/Tshwane, and depending on which report you read, the city was turning 152, 153 or even 154. But while the people of Pretoria were unaware of our existence, everyone in Court One had Pretoria very much in mind. We were trying to understand why the city cared so little for its residents that it would endanger their lives by employing people to fix major electrical problems who weren't competent. Not just that. The city was also prepared to fight the matter all the way to Bloemfontein as though a major issue of principle or safety was at stake. It all started in August 2005 when AJ Weyers, the young, feisty managing engineer of the City of Tshwane's power system control department, wrote a letter. Weyers has a master's degree in electrical engineering and is in charge of ensuring the city's electricity supply - he's the guy who makes sure the right knights in their bakkies sort out Pretoria's power problems. His department was seriously understaffed and working extremely long hours. Posts were advertised and Weyers set a test to check the applicants' capabilities. The highest mark scored by any affirmative action candidate was 12 percent (though some white applicants scored even lower). In the discussion that followed it was decided that eight candidates would be appointed: four who had fared well in the test would start right away and four (affirmative action candidates) would first be given training. At this point, a new transformation boss arrived at the council. Benny Mahlangu told Weyers that no white candidate would be appointed. Weyers decided he was duty bound to inform his professional body and the Department of Labour about his concern for the safety of all involved. (As we know, he and his colleagues work with live electricity, and the potential for fatal accidents is great.) He was then suspended and found guilty by a disciplinary tribunal of having written a letter. At this point Weyers' professional body, the Engineering Council of South Africa, brought an urgent High Court application and won a ruling that no sentence should be passed by the disciplinary tribunal as the proceedings against Weyers were unlawful." The council appealed against this decision, and that is how we all found ourselves in Court One, Judge President Lex Mpati presiding, shaking our heads at the goings-on in Tshwane. Judge Mahomed Navsa challenged Pieter Pauw SC, counsel for Tshwane: why did the city want to punish Weyers, he asked. Here was a man concerned for the safety of the people of the city and the job applicants themselves. It was obvious from the papers, said Judge Robert Nugent, that Mahlangu was determined to make Weyers do what he was told. "This whole matter arose because Weyers was a professional who challenged the authority of a bureaucrat," he added. Judge Navsa: "The view of Weyers is that people who are not competent should not be working on live wires. Do you say that this is not an important matter to draw to the attention of his professional board?" Pauw: "It is important to observe safety at work." Judge Mpati: "Do you want someone to die first?" John Mullins SC, counsel for Weyers, asked the court to rule that his client had done his duty, and though judgment isn't expected for another fortnight, I'd say there isn't much doubt about the outcome. My only question is whether the court can find some way to make the bureaucrats who went after Weyers pay for their irresponsible frolic out of their own pockets, instead of from the city coffers.