A task team a day keeps government headaches at bay

Government's default response to every contentious issue appears to be the establishment of a task team to investigate or act on the problem. Nearly every department sets up these teams, sometimes manned by industry experts, other times by high-profile civil servants, and these are allocated budgets and resources out of the fiscus. Some of them yield results and others, well, they serve as window dressing to give the impression that government is taking this or that problem seriously.

When the government faced stiff opposition, mass protests and civil society court action against the e-tolling system on Gauteng's highways, it responded by appointing a high-powered inter-ministerial task team, headed by deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe.

This task team has to do what the department of transport and the South African National Roads Agency failed to do from the outset: consult all sectors of society that would be affected by the e-tolling system and bridge consensus on the issue - while finding a way to pay for upgraded roads.

Last year the department of justice established a national task team to attend to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered and inter-sexed issues and corrective rape. This was to "dispel a myth that government is not concerned about the plight of the victims of corrective rape", the department said.

Hands up if you have heard of this task team or the results of its findings.

In May, mineral resources minister Susan Shabangu set up a task team to seal access points at disused mines in a bid to stem a resurgence in illegal mining.

Previously, she had appointed a task team to aid the troubled platinum sector. There was also a government task team on mine closure and water management.

When government had to decide whether to allow fracking, the controversial gas-extraction technique, in South Africa, a task team was established to make recommendations to Cabinet.

When public protector Thuli Madonsela found evidence of widespread maladministration at the Dipaleseng municipality in Balfour, Mpumalanga, the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs responded by appointing a task team to study the finding and make recommendations to him.

See the pattern?

Whether it's where to build new universities, xenophobia, expenditure trends, an outbreak of rabies or how to reverse the dysfunctionality at public works, the only trick up government's sleeve appears to be the good, old-fashioned task team.

Yesterday, the police ministry announced that a task team set up by minister Nathi Mthethwa to investigate allegations of a conspiracy against suspended crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli found there was "no evidence" to support the claim.

The task team, headed by state law adviser Enver Daniels, probed allegations contained in a letter Mdluli wrote to President Jacob Zuma and Mthethwa last year in which he accused former police commissioner Bheki Cele, Hawks boss Anwa Dramat, Gauteng police commissioner Mzwandile Petros and operational services head Godfrey Lebeya of conspiring to remove him from office.

In the letter to Zuma and Mthethwa, Mdluli wrote: "It is alleged (by the conspirators) that I support the minister of police and the president of the country. In the event that I come back to work, I will assist the president to succeed next year."

Mdluli is currently prohibited from performing any police actions after rights group Freedom Under Law obtained an interdict from the North Gauteng High Court barring him from doing so.

Mthethwa announced on Thursday that the commission found "no evidence suggesting that the above-mentioned senior police officials were involved in any kind of conspiracy against Lieutenant General Richard Mdluli". The commission had found that the officers acted "professionally, in good faith and with due care and regard for the sensitivity of the (Mdluli) matter". It also found that the source "which gave Lieutenant General Mdluli such information could not corroborate its information".

Mthethwa apparently needed a task team led by the state law adviser to tell him what is blatantly obvious to any right-thinking person: Mdluli is the master of his own demise and really doesn't need anyone to plot against him to blunder at every turn. He obviously resorted to a conspiracy theory to counter the mountain of allegations him. And the police minister's last-ditch attempt to find a way to shield Mdluli from suspension and prosecution blew up in his face during this task team's wild goose chase.

The non-delivery of textbooks to school children in Limpopo was aptly described by justice minister Jeff Radebe last week as a "national shame", yet it took rights NGO Section 27 to strong-arm government through court action to get books to schools. After weeks of obfuscation, basic education minister Angie Motshekga appointed former higher education director-general Mary Metcalfe to head a task team to verify that all books were in fact delivered.

After a meeting with Motshekga on Tuesday, President Jacob Zuma appointed a ministerial task team to investigate what caused the delay in delivery and why some books were dumped or destroyed.

"Members of the task team will investigate the causes of the non-delivery and delays to affected schools and make recommendations to prevent a future recurrence. The president has directed that all who are found to have played a role in delaying or stopping the delivery of books should be held accountable and face the consequences," a presidency statement said.

The presidency's task team will comprise the deputy ministers of finance, Nhlanhla Nene; basic education, Enver Surty; performance, monitoring and evaluation, Obed Bapela; co-operative governance and traditional affairs Yunus Carrim; and public service and administration, Ayanda Dlodlo.

After weeks of remaining silent on the matter, the Limpopo government on Tuesday initiated its own probe.

"A task team led by the director-general of the Limpopo provincial government will be established to ensure that government delves deep into this matter. EXCO (the provincial executive committee) will be updated regularly on the findings of the said task team. On the basis of the report produced, EXCO will decide on further cause (sic) of action to be taken," the Limpopo government said.

The statement said the premier and MECs would conduct unannounced visits to schools in the province "to obtain first-hand information regarding progress made in delivering learner support material".

Will these three concurrent task-team probes in the midst of continued denials of culpability address the crisis and instil confidence in a flailing education system? If these investigations were not taking place midway through the school year and without the state having being dragged to court first, there probably would have been more public faith in the government's actions.

As it is, it would appear that basic education, the presidency and the Limpopo all appointed these task teams as face-saving exercises after being shamed through the crisis.

Moreover, if civil servants did their jobs in the first place, there would be no need to fight fires with a high-powered task teams. Increasingly, government is being forced to perform its basic functions and to make elementary decisions through civil society pressure or the courts.

Be warned though, the risk of probing why this is so will probably result in the appointment of another task team.

This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick website.