Details indicating how a former Botswana Television (BTV) producer was trailed with transfers and redeployments after allegedly being told he “can’t be trusted in the election year” came to light this week in Court of Appeal documents.
Koketso Joshua Ntopolelang is seeking to overturn the finding of a lower court in dismissing his application for reinstatement to his job as BTV’s head of News and Current Affairs Section (NCAS). Ntopolelang was transferred vvto formerly the Ministry of Minerals Water and Energy Resources (MMEWR) in 2014 to start work as a Principal Public Relations Officer II, a move he challenged at the Industrial Court and came out on top. Ntopolelang had been employed at BTV since 2002.
A month before this happened; court papers indicate that Ntopolelang had been in a meeting with Director of Broadcasting Services, Lesole Obonye whereat the latter told him that he was not trusted as this was election year (2014). The papers indicate that Obonye further intimated that they had to find someone who they could trust to head the NCAS.
In a document that makes part of court papers, Ntopolelang writes about Obonye’s words: “Gase gore gare bone bokgoni jwa gago jaaka o bona DPS (Deputy Permanent Secretary) a kgona go go assigner high profile assignments. Re ntse re diilwe ke go bua le bagolo and we were waiting for instructions…kana ke ngwaga wa ditlhopho. Ga se gore gare bone bokgoni jwa gago…ba batla yo ba mo tshephang.” reads the document in part.
Ntopolelang further notes that Obonye mentioned the phrase ‘ke ngwaga wa ditlhopo’ three times. Immediately after this encounter, Ntopolelang e-mailed Obonye to ascertain whether he had heard him properly that he cannot be trusted especially on election year, but he never got a response via the same medium.
In the e-mail, Ntopolelang asked five questions: “Are we appointed on political trust (sic) or ability and qualifications? Since when has this been in practice and why aren’t we being told about it? How am I to interpret this (sic) statements? How have I become unreliable in the eyes of ‘bagolo’? What has the top administration done to remove my unreliability or at least show what wrong I am doing?
Instead of a rejoinder by e-mail, he received a telephone call wherein Obonye apparently made no secret of his mistrust of e-mail correspondence as “it might fall into a pair of wrong hands” It is Ntopolelang’s evidence that nearly five months later, on the 14th of August he was assigned to cover the Makgadikgadi Sky Dive.
He states in his papers that, in a strange turn of events he received a text message on the same day from the General Manager to the effect that the Deputy Permanent Secretary has instructed that he should not go on the trip because he had an assignment for him. Ntopolelang further states that the next day he was summoned to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration, Kebonye Moepeng’s office where she informed him that she was transferring him to MMEWR.
“I was left in shock because this was a matter that had never been discussed with me,” Ntopolelang states. He further notes that Moepeng proceeded to ask him whether he wanted to start his new job immediately or on the 1st of September. He however states that he countered by drawing Moepeng’s attention to a grievance he raised that he suspected had motivated his transfer, intimating that it be addressed first. The grievance arose from the words allegedly uttered by Obonye that there was a need for someone else who could be trusted to head the NCAS.
He says that he was made to believe that Moepeng would halt the transfer until his grievance had been dealt with and there has been meaningful discussion with respect to the motives of his transfer and the prejudice he stood to endure. Ntopolelang however states that to his shock, on the 22nd of August he received a letter of the same date transferring him to MMEWR.
The letter, signed off by Moepeng and seen by WeekendPost curtly states: “you are hereby transferred as Principal Public Relations Officer II in the Ministry of Minerals Water and Energy Resources. The transfer above has no effect on your present salary scale and shall take effect from 1st September 2014”.
He goes on to say that he immediately notified his trade union, Botswana Public Employees Union which subsequently arranged for him to brief lawyers. The Industrial Court halted this transfer on the 5th and 12th of October. However unbeknownst to Ntopolelang, there was still much more to come from his employer.
After failing to eject him from the NCAS and the Mass Media Complex and despite a court order halting the transfer, court documents indicate that as the case dragged on at the Industrial Court before the final rule nisi was issued, the employer slapped Ntopolelang with another letter removing him from the NCAS to the Programs Section with immediate effect.
It is Ntopolelang’s evidence that after the Industrial Court order restraining his transfer was issued, he was called into the office of Acting BTV General Manager, Solly Nageng where he was told about the redeployment to work at Programs section. He states that he was told he was to function as Head of Programs and that he was to ask for work from Nageng. He also denied that there existed a staff shortage at his new section. In fact, he said that the purported acute staff shortage was at the NCAS which was witnessed by the engagement of programs staff in producing news during and after elections.
“The news section is highly short staffed. It is currently operating with about 15 staff members(permanent and pensionable) in headquarters-this includes the editors and journalists whilst in the programs section we are talking of +-18.Given the workload of the two sections and patterns of work, one can clearly see where short staffing exists.”
He further states: “stories are often turned down or delayed because of staff shortage. Staff members are complaining in the news section because of being overworked.” Ntopolelang relaunched his bid at the Court of Appeal this week after an unsuccessful round at a lower court. His appeal is marshalled by Mboki Chilisa of Collins Chilisa Consultants. Chilisa suggested that Ntopolelang was ‘ambushed’ by Moepeng and characterised the transfer as “not a light issue that could be discussed without prior notice.”
He also stated that all the events suggest Ntopolelang’s transfer was done in bad faith because he had raised a grievance against his superior’s statements. “On facts it’s clear that no meaningful conversation had taken place. The only issue that decision makers seemed keen on was whether the transfer could be immediate or on the first of September.” he argued.
Chilisa further argued that it seems that the reason for the transfer was not to genuinely fill up the MMEWR post considering the fact that the post had been vacant for quite some time. He also argued that Moepeng had violated section 8.4 of the General Rules which guides public service transfers that outlines that in cases of filling posts, priority must always be given to employees already in the ministry.
Attorney representing government in the case of Kushata Mabophiwa was constantly on the defensive on why Ntopolelang was not advised to make representations on his transfer. While Mabophiwa conceded that Ntopolelang was not advised that he could make representations, she however insisted that he had 7 days to do that. To this, Justice Lord Abernathy responded: “How would he know that he is allowed to make representations and why not 14 days?”
The three judge panel also noted that an employer has to approach issues of transfers with an open mind willing to consider the case presented by an employee. The case awaits judgement.
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