Agriculture ministry frozen by infighting

Relations between Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson and her director general, Langa Zitha, have hit a new low, the Mail & Guardian has learned.

Officials in the department said Joemat-Pettersson blamed Zitha for a raft of blunders that have hit the department recently and now wants to fire him.

She blames Zitha for the failure to approve the R420-million tender for the provision of tractors to black emerging farmers as part of President Jacob Zuma’s Masibambisane rural-development programme.

At least 350 tractors are yet to be given to emerging black farmers in seven provinces.

Joemat-Petterson first advertised the tender in May last year, but has since cancelled and re-advertised it more than three times, apparently due to infighting between her and Zitha.

The Sowetan reported last week that Joemat-Pettersson had instructed Zitha to implement the president’s project, but Zitha is believed to have raised questions about the directive.

Both Joemat-Pettersson and Zitha have denied that they are at loggerheads, in spite of evidence to the contrary, including the minister’s recent refusal to sign Zitha’s performance contract.

Department spokesperson Selby Bokaba said: “It is evident that there is a concerted campaign driven through the media, to drive a wedge between the ministry and the department, particularly between the minister and the director general. The department is functioning very well under the stewardship of the DG.”

But a department official insisted that the minister had been engaged in a battle with Zitha over the filling of senior management positions in the department and its subsidiaries or state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

“There has been a serious delay in the appointment of DDGs [deputy directors general] in the department because these guys are fighting over candidates. The DG has his own and the minister has her own,” said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The department is in disarray. Every senior position is vacant and people are acting. The situation is the same in the department’s SOEs, like the Agricultural Research Council, Onderstepoort Biological Products, Ncera Centre and the Perishable Products: Exports Control Board.”

Zitha, a staunch member of the South African Communist Party and the ANC, was appointed departmental director general in September last year, a few months after he joined the department as a political adviser in 2009. Fifteen months later Joemat-Pettersson has refused to sign Zitha’s performance contract and is said to have referred the matter to her lawyers in the department for advice.

Zitha had a three-year contract, including a 12-month probation period. He completed a year’s service at the end of September, but the minister has been extending his probation on a month-to-month basis.

Commenting on the probation saga, Bokaba said: “The DG was supposed to have submitted his performance agreement three months after assuming duty, but due to a technical glitch there was a delay in doing so. Once he has submitted it, a process will get under way to confirm his appointment. It is not true that the matter has been referred to the lawyers. The matter is being dealt with. The minister has no intention of firing the DG. She is not interested in rocking the boat. The DG will be confirmed in his post and will see out the remainder of his contract.”

Approached for comment, Zitha denied allegations of a rift between him and the minister.

He defended his suitability and qualifications for the job. “There is nothing untoward between me and the minister,” said Zitha.

“Let people say what they want to say, I’m qualified for the job. You don’t have to have a PhD to be director general. I have a master’s degree in public administration. I was interviewed and offered the job. I went through all the competency tests and was informed by the department that my candidature was approved.”

Charles Molele

Charles Molele

Charles Molele is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. Charles joined the paper in 2011. He has covered general news, court and politics for the past 19 years, and also worked as a senior reporter for the Saturday Star, Sunday World, ThisDay, Sunday Times and is former politics editor of the New Age. Charles's other career highlights include covering Kenya's violent general elections (2007/08), Zimbabwe’s sham general elections (2008), Mozambique's food riots (2010) and the historic re-election of US President Barack Obama (2012). Read more from Charles Molele

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