Frequent clashes over how best to run the agriculture department and Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s interference in administrative matters appear to be at the centre of the suspension of director general Langa Zitha.
Zitha was apparently also unhappy about the suspension of the acting deputy director general of fisheries, Sue Middleton, two months ago.
The action against Middleton was taken after she allegedly exceeded her powers by authorising a multimillion-rand contract with the South African Deep Sea Trawling Industry Association.
But Zitha defended her and said she had done nothing wrong.
“She [Middleton] and Langa are very close and tight. Their relationship goes back to the late Eighties or early Nineties when he was a student at Rhodes and she was lecturer [of industrial psychology],” said a department official, who was not authorised to comment officially.
The last straw apparently came when Zitha recently blocked Joemat-Pettersson’s attempt to increase the salaries of her staff. Some of the increases were up to 60% and Zitha felt they could not be justified because they were not tied to performance.
“After this the minister flipped. She was furious. But then this was just a smoking gun. She’s been wanting him out for months now,” the official said.
Asked for comment, department spokesperson Palesa Mokomele said: “The questions you are asking are based on information that is based on speculation and hearsay. We do not respond to information of this kind.”
Joemat-Pettersson and Zitha have been at loggerheads for some time and the minister refused to sign his performance contract.
Last year, Joemat-Pettersson blamed Zitha for failing to approve the R420-million tender for the provision of tractors to black emerging farmers, which was part of President Jacob Zuma’s Masibambisane rural development programme.
She instructed Zitha to implement the project, but he is believed to have raised questions about the programme.
The minister also clashed with Zitha over the filling of senior management positions in the department and its subsidiaries, state-owned enterprises.
“There has been a serious delay in the appointment of deputy director generals in the department because these guys are fighting over candidates. The director general has his own and the minister has her own,” a senior official in the department said at the time.
“The department is in disarray. Every senior position is vacant and people are acting [in their positions].
“The situation is the same in the department’s state-owned enterprises like the Agricultural Research Council, Onderstepoort Biological Products, Ncera Centre and the Perishable Products Exports Control Board.”
Zitha, a staunch member of both the South African Communist Party and the ANC, was appointed director general in September 2010, just a few months after he joined the department as a political adviser in 2009.
According to department officials, Zitha was not Joemat-Pettersson’s preferred candidate.
Last year, the Mail & Guardian reported that Joemat-Pettersson had refused to sign Zitha’s performance contract and was 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, which ended on September 30 last year, but the minister did not sign his performance contract until three months ago.
Until then, his probation period was extended on a month-to-month basis.