/ 27 June 2014

Soobrayan: ‘I’m no bad guy’

Bobby Soobrayan resigned as basic education director general in March but the report upon which he partly based his decision was only finalised in the last two weeks.
Bobby Soobrayan resigned as basic education director general in March but the report upon which he partly based his decision was only finalised in the last two weeks.

Contrary to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s statement in March this year that all investigations – including that by the Public Service Commission (PSC) – into the 2012 Limpopo textbooks crisis had been completed, the final version of the PSC report was only sent to Motshekga last week.

But even this is not the end of the story, the Mail & Guardian has ascertained. When directed by the PSC to do so, the M&G asked the department for the final report last week. It said it did not have it – and offered no further comment.

On March 31 this year the basic education department issued a statement which said Motshekga had promised to “give details” about what would happen to director general Bobby Soobrayan – the man who received most of the blame for the crisis – “once all reports concerning [him] were finalised”.

“The minister has since received all the reports from the public protector, PSC and from Judge Willem van der Merwe,” the statement read.

Why Soobrayan?
These were reports that were the result of investigations into Soobrayan’s role in the textbooks crisis, among other calamities in the sector. At the end of 2012 Motshekga asked the PSC to investigate the findings of an earlier report: that of the presidential task team, which investigated the “non-delivery and/or delays in the delivery of learner/ teacher support material in Limpopo schools”.

One of the task team’s findings, which the PSC investigated, was Soobrayan’s “alleged indecisive response … to correspondence received from the publishers … regarding the procurement of [textbooks] and his failure to provide the necessary support for the [Section 100] intervention [in the province]”.

More than a year after the PSC started its investigation, the department’s March statement said its report had “cleared the DG”.

The statement went on to say Motshekga had acceded to Soobrayan’s request for redeployment: “Mr Soobrayan said now that his name has been cleared it would not be fair to allow the sector to be held to ransom in his name.”

All investigations finalised? No.
The media circulated the statement widely, giving South Africans the impression that all official investigations into the debacle, which left thousands of Limpopo pupils without the textbooks they needed for most of 2012, had at last been finalised.

Yet no print media had actually seen the PSC report – and now the M&G has found out why.

At the end of last month Soobrayan approached the M&G and offered to give it a copy of the PSC report.

Soobrayan told the M&G that he had approached the newspaper because the release of the presidential task team’s report “generated extensive coverage in the media … [and the media] focused on and repeated the findings of the task team, that essentially fingered me as the person responsible for the late delivery of textbooks”.

Numerous failures
“Indeed”, he said, “the report … set in motion a sustained narrative in the media that associated me with numerous failures, extending beyond the textbook delivery matter.”

He said he expected that the PSC report, “which vindicates me”, would receive similar coverage to that of the task team’s report.

“I am extremely disappointed that this has not happened. I have therefore taken the step to furnish you with a copy of the PSC report … with the view to [your] assessing how it impacts on earlier reporting on the subject.”

He said this may help in “mitigating the pain and suffering I have had to endure and to allow me and my daughters to get on with our lives”.

Lasting impression
He was still waiting to be allocated another position in government and feared this process had been tainted because “there was still this impression in the media and the public that I am the bad guy in all this”.

The copy he then gave the M&G turned out to be a draft. Its covering letter says the PSC sent it to Motshekga on December 9 last year. The letter, written by PSC chairperson, Ben Mthembu, said: “The investigation has been completed … once your comments have been received, a final report will be submitted to you. [If] no comment is received within 30 days, the PSC will assume that you concur with the contents …”

The draft report says that the presidential task team’s finding on the publisher’s correspondence “is not accurate” because its letter “does not focus on Limpopo only”. It says the publisher’s letter was actually a response to the department, which asked publishers for an update on the procurement of textbooks for 2012 in all provinces.

The PSC also said Soobrayan’s “conduct … as accounting officer for the [department], in the circumstances was reasonable” and that in respect of Soobrayan’s alleged inadequate support of administrators, 41 employees of the department travelled to Limpopo in January and that support within the capacity of the department “was provided … albeit [that it was] insufficient”.

The M&G sent questions to the PSC at the beginning of June, asking if the draft report had become the final report, since Motshekga had not, according to Soobrayan, allegedly submitted any comments.

Ongoing investigation
Surprisingly, in the light of Motshekga’s March statement, the PSC replied on June 12 that it “is finalising its investigation relating to the Limpopo textbook crisis … At the conclusion of the investigation, the PSC will inform the relevant executive authority of its findings and recommendations”.

The M&G then asked the PSC what it was still investigating; it replied on June 19 that a copy of the report “was forwarded to [Motshekga] on Wednesday, 18 June 2014. You are therefore kindly advised to engage [her] on the findings and recommendations of the PSC’s report”.

But here the mystery deepened even further. Departmental spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga told the M&G last Friday that the department could not comment because “we have not received the report you refer to”.

On these latest developments, Soobrayan said: “I subjected myself to the PSC investigation and early this year the minister indicated to me that it had cleared me. It was on that basis that I said I would step aside as director general. So it is very worrying to me to hear that the PSC says in June that it was still investigating and that it only concluded the final report around June 18 this year.

“The long and inexplicable delay in the finalisation and release of the PSC report has allowed an assumption of my culpability for the Limpopo textbook crisis to take root in the media and public consciousness.”