On a cold Saturday morning in May last year, a group of South African officials were locked up in a boardroom in Geneva, Switzerland, for five hours. They were being punished by South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko — except the officials had done nothing wrong.
It was three other officials who had not arrived for a meeting that infuriated Mxakato-Diseko, who felt disrespected and sought to set an example. She locked the door, wrote a stern email to the department of labour complaining about the conduct of the officials who had skipped the brainstorming session (on how to deal with the internal auditors arriving the following week).
But, said one embassy employee, “She sent out the meeting request on Friday, demanding everyone attend on Saturday. Some people had prior commitments. When she realised that the other officials weren’t coming to her meeting, she locked the doors and we were in there for five hours.”
The ambassador, it appears, is quite partial to meetings. Monday meetings are her favourite time to belittle officials, according to an embassy employee.
“She will say things like she doesn’t know what we are doing at the embassy and that we are useless, [but] I have decades of experience. Her deputy is so afraid of her she never says a thing. She literally shakes every day and can’t talk in meetings,” he said.
The bizarre story of the five-hour lock-up was told to the Mail & Guardian by two sources, who work for the mission in Geneva and the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco). They said this is only one of a series of incidents that point to the hellish workplace the embassy has become. One official said Mxakato-Diseko has turned the embassy into a “fearful gauntlet to run every day”.
A labour dispute seems to have been the last straw for embassy officials.
In August last year Zinhle Nkosi, a consular clerk, was fired on the spot for not going to work while sick, although she claims she had a doctor’s note excusing her.
She was given 10 minutes to remove her belongings from the building, according to a letter she wrote to Mxakato-Diseko asking for clarification about why she was fired.
“I was escorted with my belongings like a criminal out of the building of the permanent mission of South Africa to the United Nations office at Geneva. I would like to formally express that I find the manner in which I was dismissed both procedurally and substantively unfair,” she wrote.
When questions were posed to Mxakato-Diseko, Balanganani Masia, responding on behalf of the ambassador, referred them to the department.
Department spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya said the minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, had told the director general (DG) to attend to the matter.
“The matter is also in the CCMA [the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration]. We will make a decision when the CCMA and our internal investigation is completed. All the complaints relate to the same matter. The DG has directed a HR [human resources] specialist to go visit the mission on a fact-finding mission as part of the Dirco investigation,” he said.
It has been six months since Nkosi was fired. She said she could not comment because the matter was being handled internally by the department.
But, according to Mthunzi Mdwaba, a spokesperson for the International Organisation of Employers, which represents government employees and businesses in the United Nations, the matter was referred to them by South Africa’s department of labour.
“I was approached because there was an alleged unprocedural firing and that the person concerned was not given a hearing or an opportunity to explain her side,” Mdwaba said.
“My role is that of a global spokesperson for all employers in the world. In this particular case, both Bheki [Ntshalintshali, labour federation Cosatu’s general secretary] and I were approached as governing body members of the ILO [International Labour Organisation], first and foremost from South Africa, I believe in an attempt to resolve this matter before it goes out of hand,” he said.
Teboho Thejane, the department of labour’s spokesperson, said the matter was brought to their attention because they are part of the International Organisation of Employers.
“Both the minister of labour and director general engaged their counterpart from Dirco with a view to resolving the matter thus ensuring it is not escalated to the ILO as a violation-of-rights case against the country,” he said.
In August last year, Mdwaba and Ntshalintshali wrote to Sisulu expressing their “serious concern” about the treatment and working conditions of staff in Geneva, adding that “we feel this has to be urgently attended to as it has the potential to embarrass our president and country”.
The letter states that it was brought to their attention that there is an alleged reign of terror at the embassy, which has resulted in low morale and staff being booked off sick.
“It is alleged the ambassador’s unwanted conduct violates staff dignity and creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment,” reads the letter.
According to Mdwaba, Sisulu has acknowledged receiving their letter.
But Mabaya said all letters had been responded to and all allegations were being investigated.
Another source, who works with Mxakato-Diseko and is based at the international relations and co-operation department in Pretoria, said he has seen a number of complaints against the ambassador.
“The environment is so bad there one lady came home three or four times in a year because of stress and anxiety. She had to be admitted [to hospital for stress and anxiety],” he said.
The source described how Mxakato-Diseko yelled at her officials in front of UN delegates.
“When she loses it, she loses it. She would scream things like: ‘How many times have I told you so?’ and about how the president is not happy with the work of an official.”