At first glance, Thandile Gubevu’s dismissal from the National Credit Regulator (NCR) in March may appear a relatively trifling matter, the kind of thing that goes on daily in the South African workplace.
But on closer inspection, Gubevu’s story is far from an isolated instance. Several other former NCR employees were dismissed under similar circumstances in recent years, suggesting all is not well at the credit regulator. In Gubevu’s case, and those of other dismissed employees, senior counsel was brought in at considerable cost to dignify what seems on the face of it a dysfunctional human resources policy. All of this paid for by the taxpayer.
Gubevu was employed in 2012 at the NCR as a research and special projects consultant, a mid-level position. By all accounts, he was a diligent worker and well-liked by colleagues, though some of his seniors held an entirely different view of him.
In November 2017, seemingly out of the blue, he was hauled into a disciplinary hearing and charged with insubordination, disrespectful conduct and non-adherence to standard rules and procedures. In one instance, Gubevu apparently paged through a magazine during a departmental meeting and failed to answer emails from his line manager, Ngoako Mabeba. Then, in apparent violation of internal rules, Gubevu engaged the services of a firm of attorneys to represent him in his dispute with the NCR.
Hardly explosive stuff, but Gubevu was suspended in July 2017, pending a review by an internal disciplinary committee chaired by an independent legal firm appointed by the NCR. In November the committee found him not guilty on all charges and recommended his suspension be lifted with immediate effect.
Not satisfied with the outcome of the disciplinary hearing, the NCR rejected the findings and dismissed him outright. Gubevu felt he had no choice but to approach the Pretoria High Court and ask it to compel the NCR to accept him back at work. The court came to the same conclusion as the internal disciplinary committee, dismissed all the charges, and ordered that Gubevu be re-hired.
Judge Manamela went further, awarding punitive costs against the NCR, with the following words: “Counsel for the respondent (NCR) submitted that there was no basis for a punitive cost order as the respondent pursued a very legitimate interest in in this matter. I disagree. The respondent’s conduct no matter the noble or legitimate nature of the underlying motives as suggested by his counsel, does not trump the fact that there was no logical or reasonable basis for the interpretation of the impugned policies offered by the respondent.”
Judge Manamela further charged the NCR with bad faith in its disclosure of facts related to its disciplinary policies.
That’s two strikes against the NCR. Armed with a court order, Gubevu returned to work, receiving a hero’s welcome from colleagues. However, the NCR wasn’t done with him yet. It dragged its heels in reinstating him as per the court order. Gubevu was forced to take the matter back to court, this time before Judge AJ Strydom, who confirmed the earlier court order by Judge Manamela. Judge Strydom ordered that Gubevu be reinstated.
Strike three against the NCR.
Still not happy with the outcome, the NCR is now appealing both High Court orders and wants a full bench of the Pretoria High Court to hear the matter. All to dismiss a mid-level employee? By the time this case is done, the NCR will likely have run up legal costs of several hundred thousand rands in terms of its senior counsel, attorneys and man-hours consumed in putting together a door-stopper of a court file to get rid of Gubevu.
In other words, the NCR is so intent on getting rid of Gubevu that it is likely spending way more on legal fees than on his outstanding salary, which was abruptly terminated in February.
Was Gubevu so toxic an employee that his former employer would go to such lengths to get rid of him? “I’m not a difficult employee at all, but I do express my opinions and I guess certain people felt threatened by that. I got on well with my colleagues and I was treated as a hero for defending myself against the mistreatment that I and others had to suffer,” he replied. “The fact that the NCR will go to these lengths to get rid of me is a gross abuse of public funds and it is time the Department of Trade and Industry (under which the NCR falls) started to pay attention to what is going on.”
When approached for comment, NCR company secretary Lesiba Mashapa said: “This is an internal labour relations matter between Mr Gubevu and the NCR.”
Gubevu, now in his fifties and without any source of income, claims this is nothing more than a case of vindictiveness by his former boss. But it gets worse: the overhang of an ongoing labour dispute makes it virtually impossible for him to find work, and the NCR is unlikely to give him a decent recommendation. He has been branded a troublemaker, which is certainly not the case according to several former co-workers.
As to Gubevu’s claims that numerous other employees were dismissed under similar circumstances, those contacted by Moneyweb corroborated his story and had sad tales of their own, though none would go on the record for fear of jeopardising their new-found jobs.
One former employee, Rajeen Devpruth, was involved in a long-running dispute with the NCR, and a pay claim of about R800 000, but reportedly died before the matter was resolved. “He died of stress, fighting his case at the Labour Court,” says a friend and former co-worker who asked not to be named.
Even allowing for the fact that divorce is seldom amicable, and the facts of any break-up are inevitably disputed, Gubevu’s case – which is well documented in court papers – raises questions about how the NCR is governing itself and spending the taxpayers’ dime.