Ngobeni suspended after Manuel letter

Paul Ngobeni may lose his job as legal adviser to Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu after his open letter to Planning Minister Trevor Manuel on a race row involving government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi.

“The minister [Sisulu] has since suspended Mr Paul Ngobeni from all duties with full pay for a period of 30 days and also requested him to submit written reasons why he should not be released from his duties as the legal adviser to the minister,” Sisulu’s office said in a statement on Monday.

Sisulu distanced herself from the letter and “all its contents”, saying neither she nor her office were consulted about the it. “Following the publication of the letter, the minister initiated an internal investigation and also received an apology from Mr Ngobeni indicating he had written in his personal capacity expressing his personal views and had never intended that the minister’s office should be drawn into the matter.

“He also extended his apology for the embarrassment the letter may have caused to the president of the Republic, President Jacob Zuma and the minister.”

Ngobeni, a prominent backer of Zuma, called Manuel a gangster of the worst kind in an open letter published in the Sunday Independent. This was after Manuel, also in an open letter, chastised Manyi for saying there was an “over supply” of coloured people in the Western Cape.

Manuel called Manyi a racist of the “worst order”, in the strongly worded letter, a move which the African National Congress (ANC) has since criticised.

The party distanced itself from Manuel’s attack on Manyi, saying the minister had acted without the party’s blessing.

Responding to Manuel’s letter, Ngobeni said Manuel acted as if he was “the king of the coloured people”, accusing him of undermining the president and Cabinet for appointing Manyi as government spokesperson. He further called for Manuel to be fired.

Ngobeni also accused Manuel of not knowing the Constitution and of using his senior Cabinet and ANC positions to try to get rid of Manyi.

“I was appalled by your cowardly, unwarranted and racist attacks on Manyi,” Ngobeni wrote.

“In gangster-like fashion some of you have deliberately targeted Manyi and have relentlessly pursued an agenda of driving him out of any position where his views may be heard.”

Ngobeni said the matters raised in Manyi’s original comment about the “over-concentration of coloureds in the Western Cape” was a national issue and not exclusively a coloured matter. He said it was not racist to debate these issues freely and frankly.

The race row over Manyi’s comments has resulted in calls for him to be fired, but Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane, in a statement, said the controversial spokesperson and chief executive of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) would remain in his job. Manyi has apologised for the comments through GCIS deputy chief executive officer Vusi Mona.

Ngobeni’s appointment as Sisulu’s legal adviser was not without controversy — with opposition parties charging that it was part of a “pattern” of appointing Zuma’s friends.

It was reported that he “stirred up controversy” at the University of Cape Town where he was the deputy registrar. This was due to his outspoken defence of Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe.

United States authorities also reportedly confirmed Ngobeni was a fugitive from justice in the state of Connecticut, where he faced criminal charges, including forgery and larceny, at the time of his appointment in 2009.

Ngobeni was a vocal supporter of Zuma when he faced corruption charges — he wrote an open letter to Judge Arthur Chaskalson and advocate George Bizos on press statements they issued about the then-case against the president.

He was hired amid the minister’s battle with soldier trade unions. — Sapa

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