EVERY afternoon, when I take the dogs for a walk, we drive past a local junior school. For many months part of the grounds has been a bright green contrast to the wintry khaki-grey of the neighbouring veld. But the green isn’t healthy. It’s where sewer drains have burst, leaking their contents onto the playground.
People associated with the school say they’ve complained countless times, and that workers have come to the site. They leave their tools there permanently but only work occasional Sundays to coincide with overtime hours.
Like many readers I’ve been alarmed by recent stories of abuse at schools, but it’s no less abusive to ignore a school principal’s complaints of sewerage ponds across the grounds.
The principals of the schools where I taught were powerful figures, at least in the eyes of staff, students and parents. Yet here’s someone whose powerlessness is constantly obvious to himself and everyone else in this community.
My disquiet about the situation made me more than usually interested in a case, decided this week by Labour Court judge Sean Snyman, involving Kongko Louis Makau, principal of the Mabogopedi Secondary School since 1998. He’s had a number of problems related to his job and since 2002 he has tried to get some action from the Limpopo education authorities. Every attempt has been ignored. Even when he eventually went to court the authorities ignored him, and as you read this painstakingly thorough judgment you can’t help feeling outraged by the education authorities’ behaviour.
In March 2002 Makau asked for a transfer, saying he was ‘finding it difficult’ to carry out his responsibilities. Instead of provoking urgent intervention and discussions at least, there was no reaction. In August 2003 he asked to be placed on the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) for counselling on work-related matters. No response. Makau began to feel he was being discriminated against. His psychological, emotional and physical condition deteriorated, so did his family life.
He became physically ill and there was then a dispute over his sick leave documents that, according to Makau, were misplaced by the department whose officials then began action against him for being absent without leave. The situation escalated and in January 2011 Makau again asked for help under the EAP. No reply.
He was booked off work after being admitted to a clinic; then for another period due to depression. In October 2011 he finally filed a comprehensive and properly motivated request to be admitted to the EAP. (His earlier attempts had been bald requests, without supporting documentation.)
But rather than addressing the issues raised in this application the department found him guilty of negligence on a number of disciplinary grounds – without due process or any explanation of the grounds on which the finding was based, even though some of the issues were precisely those for which he had been seeking help in the first place.
In November 2011 he lodged a formal grievance against the way the circuit manager had treated him and referred to his EAP application to which he had still had no reply. Nothing happened. Early the following year he tried again to meet with departmental officials. He was ignored. He asked for documents related to the negligence finding and never had a reply. His psychological state deteriorated and in 2012 he submitted medical reports. No response except threats of further disciplinary action.
Last August he asked the CCMA for help, but when the matter was heard no one from the department turned up. When Makau asked a lawyer to take on his case the department ignored the lawyer’s letters. When the case went to court – with a damages claim of R150 000 for discrimination – the department ignored that too.
The judge had some harsh words for the authorities’ behaviour, saying it ‘was endemic in the public sector’ for employers to ignore cases brought against them.
He found for Makau saying the department had ‘discriminated’ against him by ignoring all his substantiated pleas for help and information. However because Makau had continued to receive his salary he could only award ‘general damages’, in this case a month’s salary or R34 000.
He gave the department 60 days to deal with Makau’s EAP request and his grievance dispute, and the department must pay the costs of the case.
Outrageous that these costs must from a budget intended to educate the kids of Limpopo – not for covering up the inhumane, abysmal behaviour of the province’s education officials.