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Paperwork and power plays: contestation and performance at a Limpopo municipality

By Joel Pearson

Abstract

This article considers the role that documents played in episodes of political conflict that gripped the conflictual Mogalakwena Local Municipality in Limpopo province, South Africa. Advancing from the idea that an organisation is a ‘collective storytelling system’, the article shows how the authoring of official documents offers an important tool for actors in state institutions to anchor a narrative in a material form, emblazoned with letterheads and signatures, symbols of official legitimacy. Access to the means of documentary production and distribution can be used to generate resources of state power: to bestow power-plays with the seal of official validity; to legitimise actions in the language of bureaucratic neutrality, of disinterested rationality, of ‘good governance’. Yet in the context of acute political division that prevailed at the Municipality, in which actors advanced competing versions of events, documents and the processes through which they were produced and disseminated became sites of contest. Tracing dynamics around documentary productions and processes in the Mogalakwena crisis reveals crucial ways in which power and authority are constituted and contested in a local municipality through narrative forms, symbolic strategies and story performances.

The archival record is at once expression and instrument of power … It is a crucible of human experience, a battleground for meaning and significance, a babel of stories, a place and a space of complex and ever- shifting power plays. Here one cannot keep one’s hands clean. (Harris 2002:85)

Introduction

Documents and power are intimately entwined. This intimacy is captured in the very term ‘bureaucracy’ – which, translated from the French, means ‘rule by writing desk’ (Hull 2012:12). Coined in eighteenth century France, it was an expression of outrage against the intrusive documentary practices of government into the lives of citizens. With its ever-advancing frontiers of surveillance and control, this critique is still frequently advanced. But what is less frequently considered is how documents are a source of profound contention for those working within the state. They are indeed at the heart of the many struggles over meaning that suffuse state institutions.

According to David Boje (1991:106), an organisation is a ‘collective storytelling system’ in which ‘the performance of stories is a key part of members’ sense making’, while Mitchel Abolafia (2010:349) argues that ‘the enactment of plausible and coherent narratives is a critical tool for organizational elites’ because it smooths out complex and ambiguous situations into simplified plot lines. The authoring of official documents offers an important means for actors to anchor a narrative in a material form; emblazoned with letterheads and signatures, they provide symbols of official legitimacy ‘to guide organizational action and to shape the reactions of those in their environment’ (Abolafia 2010:349).

In the context of South African government offices, which invariably pulsate with conflictual, ‘dynamic and plurivocal discourse’ (Brown 2004:104), official documents offer a means to legitimise one interpretation at the expense of others. In the battles of ‘narrative against narrative, story against story’ (Harris 1999:1) which play out in state institutions, documents are ‘valuable political resources’ (Brown 2004:98). With an explosion in the discourse of corruption, documents frame decision-making in terms of ‘good governance’ as opposed to personal or factional motives. Official documents carry the language of appropriate procedure; they bleach emotive issues into the stock formulas of government-speak. Most crucially, they provide a trail of ‘evidence’ – the auditable material – should the eye of the law be brought to bear on the work of politicians and bureaucrats. Documents, as Harris reminds us, bear witness to, and participate in, ‘complex and ever-shifting power plays’ (2002:85).

This article considers the clash of documents in the recent history of the conflictual Mogalakwena Local Municipality in Limpopo province, South Africa. Positioning this as a case study, I will illustrate contested attempts by agents of government to use official documents in discursive strategies in an increasingly turbulent environment in which the regular sources of municipal authority came to be questioned. We will see how access to the means of documentary production and distribution can be used to generate resources of state power, to bestow the seal of official validity on actions of government agents, and frame activities in the language of bureaucratic neutrality and the disinterested rationality of the ‘public good’. Yet with competing factions seeking to assert control over the administration and clear out their rivals, the legitimacy of texts and the authority of their authors was profoundly challenged, and documents and the processes through which they were produced and disseminated became sites of fierce contestation.

 

Political instability at Mogalakwena

Since 2015, researchers from the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) have conducted extensive interviews and archival research at the Mogalakwena Local Municipality. Elsewhere, we argued that the institution has remained in the grip of ‘perpetual instability’ (Phadi, Pearson and Lesaffre 2018). We showed that divisions in the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), have plagued its functioning for almost a decade. We detailed a particularly tumultuous period at the municipality from 2009 to 2015, during the national presidency of Jacob Zuma. At the centre of the growing political crisis in Mogalakwena was a feud between the municipal manager and a series of mayors – antagonisms tied into broader divisions in the ANC in the Limpopo province.

In our previous work, we also showed that the appointment of the municipal manager (MM) – the functionary who stands at the apex of municipal administration – had been politically contentious (Phadi et al 2018). The MM had the support of the provincial ANC which was then under the leadership of the premier, Cassel Mathale. The Regional Executive Committee (REC) of the ANC in the Waterberg, which usually plays a dominant role in deployment decisions at municipalities, had however recommended another candidate and resented Kekana’s imposition on the municipality. Moreover, the granting of his five year contract was in violation of the relevant legislation.1 While the Waterberg Region made various attempts to remove Kekana, through their proxies at the municipality, the MM was able to call on the aid of the provincial Department of Cooperative Governance, Human Settlements and Traditional Affairs (CoGHSTA)2 for protection. In 2013, however, Mathale’s administration was removed from provincial government, and replaced by a power bloc in the ANC led by his detractors. Kekana now found his position increasingly embattled.

In a bid to protect his position, Kekana dug into the resources available as head of the municipal administration. He turned to the courts to fend off threats to his position, and launched disciplinary charges against his opponents in Council and the administration. The battle between the mayor and the MM split the Council of 60 down the middle: 22 ANC and ten opposition councillors supported Kekana’s position; 29 ANC councillors supported the mayor. Using their slim majority in council, the MM’s faction voted to expel the mayor along with the councillors who supported him. These ‘pro-mayor councillors’ were prevented from accessing the municipal premises by private security companies, and held their own council meetings at a local hotel. Finally, with the explicit support of provincial government, the mayor and his allies staged a dramatic return to the municipality in the closing months of 2014. Using tear gas and rubber bullets, police and bodyguards cleared officials from the municipal building. The ANC councillors who had supported the MM were removed from office, and Willy Kekana – now entirely without political support – never returned to the Municipality.

In what follows, I return to consider the events at Mogalakwena, but this time with an explicit focus on the role of documents and the processes surrounding them. This highlights how one key strand of these internecine struggles was a battle of paper.

The explosive annexure

Life in local municipalities is lived within and around meetings. A multitude of legislatively-prescribed gatherings must take place to guide the course of administrative action. In the collective executive system practised in Mogalakwena Local Municipality,3 an executive committee (the ‘Exco’) of ten councillors, on a monthly basis, consider items for discussion submitted by the various departments and political structures of the municipality to the office of the Council speaker, for inclusion in the agenda. In Mogalakwena, Exco meetings are followed by a full sitting of the Council – an assembly of 60 elected councillors who deliberate on the ‘recommendations’ made by Exco. The items that generally fill meeting

ANC. Indeed, the former mayor, Bob Mmola, describes how before Kekana’s appointment, he had voiced concerns to the premier about Kekana’s contract, which irregularly gave Kekana a five year term. In reply, Mmola was given an instruction:

… the contract will be extended. And I said, ‘Ok’. And [the provincial ANC] even told me to go to council to report that we were appointing him for five years. And I asked them if it was legal, and they said, ‘Just go’. And there were some who were also questioning his deployment but we did it [appointed him] anyway. (Interview with Bob Mmola, 2015)

Thobejane cried foul on Kekana’s appointment from the outset, arguing that it contravened section 56(4)(1) of the Municipal Systems Act.4 Poisonous exchanges between the two men had been witnessed in the corridors and offices of the municipality. According to Thobejane, Kekana had also sought to ‘humiliate’ him, accusing him (during Council proceedings) of wasteful expenditure when a three-day workshop he had organised only lasted for two days. ‘Since that embarrassing incident, our relationship soured further and further’ (MH Thobejane v. MLM, Case No. J2441/10).

What escalated this conflict was a document presented to Council, annexed as Item A of the Council Agenda of November 2010: ‘The Report of the Municipal Manager’ (MLM, November 24, 2010). Authored by Kekana, the document alleged that Thobejane had irregularly terminated the mandate of a law firm to collect outstanding debt owed to the municipality. It recommended that Thobejane be suspended and investigated. Using Boje’s language, Kekana’s appeals in council chambers to have Thobejane suspended constituted a ‘story performance’ through which Kekana sought to transmit a ‘recognizable, cogent, defensible, and seemingly rational’ (Boje 1991:106) account to Council of the alleged infractions. These, he plainly hoped, would filter throughout the institution and establish itself as an ‘institutional truth’. And the report provided the opening script and appropriate formalities for this performance of the municipal manager. It was what Abolafia (2010:353) has termed a ‘preliminary reduction’ of a complex situation which ‘provid[ed] structure and coherence to the discussion’.

In the report, Kekana formalised a multidimensional feud between two individuals into a single story. The intricacies of the rivalry between Kekana and Thobejane were naturally absent. Certain pertinent details were omitted from the story detailed in the report, crucial to understanding agendas in small town municipalities like Mogalakwena relate to the challenges of running a municipality in an area of high unemployment and poverty. Recommendations are, for instance, advanced for the tarring of roads, for the registering of indigent citizens to qualify for the provision of basic services, or indeed for campaigns to encourage payment for water and electricity. For years in Mogalakwena, owing to the overwhelming majority that the ANC enjoyed in the Council, recommendations were accepted without controversy and endorsed as institutional ‘resolutions’, to be followed by the stipulated administrative action.

However, as divisions deepened, routine procedures became anything but smooth. By 2011, items were being put to a vote by warring factions of the ruling party: the ANC caucus was irretrievably divided, and this lead to dramatic performances in the council chambers. Minutes of meetings bear witness to the furious arguments between opposing factions, and the descent into physical aggression. From mid-2013, ‘bouncers’ attended Council meetings and were called upon to physically remove belligerent councillors.

In the course of these battles, particular documents were recruited by actors seeking to advance their own strategies – paper grenades lobbed into a volatile crowd which provoked some explosive outrage. Documents bore profound political implications. In this section, I consider council chambers as a site for what Boje (1991) calls ‘story performances’, and consider the role that documents played in structuring and legitimising these performances, reducing a complex and ambiguous set of interpersonal power dynamics to a simple digestible story.

An early skirmish in the unfolding Mogalakwena saga concerned a far- reaching dispute between the MM, Willy Kekana, and the manager of Corporate Support Services, Henry Thobejane. A word of background is necessary. Thobejane was the ANC region’s preferred candidate for the role of MM in 2009, but lost out when the provincial executive opted to appoint Kekana in his stead (Phadi et al 2018). A former mayor, Bob Mmola, says that ‘When the MM (Kekana) came, he came with the impression that he [Thobejane] was his contender’ (interview with Bob Mmola, August 2015). As is so often the case in local politics, the two men had known each other for many years, having both been active in ANC party structures, and now falling in with opposing camps that came to divide the Limpopo province. Crucially, Kekana had the support of the premier Cassel Mathale, and the provincial leadership of the Limpopo ANC. Indeed, the former mayor, Bob Mmola, describes how before Kekana’s appointment, he had voiced concerns to the premier about Kekana’s contract, which irregularly gave Kekana a five year term. In reply, Mmola was given an instruction:

… the contract will be extended. And I said, ‘Ok’. And [the provincial ANC] even told me to go to council to report that we were appointing him for five years. And I asked them if it was legal, and they said, ‘Just go’. And there were some who were also questioning his deployment but we did it [appointed him] anyway. (Interview with Bob Mmola, 2015)

Thobejane cried foul on Kekana’s appointment from the outset, arguing that it contravened section 56(4)(1) of the Municipal Systems Act.4 Poisonous exchanges between the two men had been witnessed in the corridors and offices of the municipality. According to Thobejane, Kekana had also sought to ‘humiliate’ him, accusing him (during Council proceedings) of wasteful expenditure when a three-day workshop he had organised only lasted for two days. ‘Since that embarrassing incident, our relationship soured further and further’ (MH Thobejane v. MLM, Case No. J2441/10).

What escalated this conflict was a document presented to Council, annexed as Item A of the Council Agenda of November 2010: ‘The Report of the Municipal Manager’ (MLM, November 24, 2010). Authored by Kekana, the document alleged that Thobejane had irregularly terminated the mandate of a law firm to collect outstanding debt owed to the municipality. It recommended that Thobejane be suspended and investigated. Using Boje’s language, Kekana’s appeals in council chambers to have Thobejane suspended constituted a ‘story performance’ through which Kekana sought to transmit a ‘recognizable, cogent, defensible, and seemingly rational’ (Boje 1991:106) account to Council of the alleged infractions. These, he plainly hoped, would filter throughout the institution and establish itself as an ‘institutional truth’. And the report provided the opening script and appropriate formalities for this performance of the municipal manager. It was what Abolafia (2010:353) has termed a ‘preliminary reduction’ of a complex situation which ‘provid[ed] structure and coherence to the discussion’.

In the report, Kekana formalised a multidimensional feud between two individuals into a single story. The intricacies of the rivalry between Kekana and Thobejane were naturally absent. Certain pertinent details were omitted from the story detailed in the report, crucial to understanding the fuller political dimensions of the dispute playing out. It made no mention of the political background to the dispute, namely that the province had gone over the heads of the ANC region to impose their own appointment of an MM, and that this had contributed to the souring of the relationship between the two political structures. The documentary evidence that Kekana presented was intended to simply show that Thobejane had wilfully violated an administrative order in cancelling the contract with the lawyers, and that his removal was thus strictly in the interests of ‘good governance’. The effect was that complex interpersonal power- plays were masked by the conceit of neutrality offered by the language and documentary routines of the administrative state.

In Matthew Hull’s work (2012:35), the study of ‘graphic artifacts’ illuminates crucial practices through which resources of power are generated. Hull (2012:35) points out that ‘the most fundamental function of documentation … in all bureaucratic organizations, is to constitute the organization by distinguishing actions done for the organization from all others … distinguishing official from unofficial, or public from private, actions’. Government agents quickly learn that their documentary productions must be, to borrow Ann Stoler’s phrase, ‘carefully tended’ (2002:103). Stoler notes that the official document encompasses a ‘teaching task’ which educates officials in the ‘bureaucratic shuffle of rote formulas, generic plots and prescriptive asides’ which form the foundation of official credibility (Stoler 2009:35). Actors embroiled ‘in the game’ come to ‘apprehend the tacit changing rules of decorum and protocol, what rhetorical devices were deemed persuasive and currently active’ (Stoler 2009:25). Stoler employs Michel Foucault’s concept of a ‘system of statements’: that which typically operates in a bureaucracy tends to obliterate that which is emotive, personal and affective – or at least, as Stoler shows, obscure it behind dull sounding phrases, scientific pretension, and the passive voice.

In South Africa, as in most parts of the world, ‘neoliberal discourses of good governance’ have come to suffuse official language and daily exchanges in government institutions (see Sharma and Gupta 2006:21), emboldened by public sector reforms in the post-apartheid era derived from the New Public Management (NPM) paradigm (see Chipkin and Meny-Gibert 2012). Actors within the state have been schooled in the appropriate use of this language – not least because it can be a key strategy for survival within an environment especially sensitive to claims of

impropriety, irregularity or indeed more serious allegations of corruption. Discourses of ‘corruption’ signal the negation of ‘good governance’ within the state, capturing the distinction between actions based on ‘private gain’ as opposed to ‘public good’.

Throughout the unfolding crisis, in the many reports he authored – as well as in media interviews and in High Court appearances – Kekana deployed the language and framing devices of ‘good governance’ to his great narrative advantage. As threats to his position mounted over the years, Kekana would work to elaborate a story in which he emerged as a champion of integrity: the last line of defence against a predatory faction of the ANC who sought to drain the coffers of the local state. The creation of documents was a key element of this rhetorical strategy, and the Thobejane report an early instance of this.

The report was not a complete fabrication. Investigators and a judge of the High Court did find significant evidence of activities which could be cast as ‘irregular’ or ‘fraudulent’ on the part of Thobejane (KPMG 2012, MLM v. MH Thobejane – Case No. 47406/2012). But Kekana’s report was nevertheless highly selective, ‘direct[ing] attention away from certain facts and towards others in order to protect sectional interests, gain resources and maintain or restructure institutional patterns of power and deference’ (Brown 1994:863). For instance, as the head of the municipal administration, Kekana distanced himself from any hint of personal feud that may have existed between himself and Thobejane, and obscured the political battle at stake in the suspension of the manager. Moreover, the report did not proffer any reason that Thobejane may have halted payments to the law firm.5

As both Boje (1991) and Abolafia (2010) emphasise in their theorisation of the power of documents, a text cannot be considered in isolation from its enactment. We know little of the discussion that occurred in council chambers over Kekana’s (so-called) ‘report’, apart from the sparse details provided by the minutes. We do know that ‘all managers and officials were recused’ except the municipal manager. This setting provided important advantages for Kekana: it allowed him to raise the issue of Thobejane (his one-time rival) before the Council in the first place (in his dedicated slot ‘Report of the Municipal Manager’), and to have the targeted official removed from the room while he did so.

Despite ‘arguable misrepresentations and omissions’ (Brown 2005:1597), Kekana’s report nonetheless generated political backing.6 After its presentation, the minutes of the Council indicate that the recommendations presented in Kekana’s report were directly transformed into this Council resolution: ‘Manager: Corporate Support Services should be placed on suspension subject to [listed] conditions … the Municipal Manager be mandated to constitute a disciplinary tribunal against Mr Thobejane should the investigation establish a prima facie case of misconduct’ (MLM November 24, 2010).

In his description of an organisation as a ‘storytelling system’, Boje suggests that the elements required to tell a convincing story, are, perhaps, most starkly visible in courtroom performances:

Just as in the courtroom, stories are performed among stakeholders to make sense of an equivocal situation … the interpretation of the exact sequence of events and how those events speak of the motive of the defendant are made or broken in the performance of the story and by the credibility of the teller. (Boje 1991:106, emphasis added)

As we have established, Kekana was a credible teller – certainly in the eyes of the law. He carried credentialed authority as the designated accounting officer of the municipal administration. The role of the MM is a powerful one – the final signature authorising administrative action. And indeed, according to interviews with councillors and administrators, and as is evidenced in his document productions, Kekana carried himself as a seasoned bureaucrat; he was trained in the language of administration and spoke with an air of managerial authority. Moreover, he carried significant political credentials: he was protected by the Mathale-Malema faction that held the top leadership positions in the Limpopo ANC and the provincial government

The political networks and machinations that had brought Kekana to the position of MM would not have been lost on ANC councillors. Yet, and this is crucial, Kekana’s political backing came under threat as the months progressed, and his position – and indeed the stories he told – attracted increasing dissent within the council chambers.

The battle of documents: competing stories and a crisis of authority

The events that followed the suspension of Thobejane took place against the backdrop of a growing crisis of authority in the province. By mid- 2011, the Mathale-Malema grouping of the ANC had fallen out with Jacob Zuma; months later they were actively campaigning for his removal as ANC president (Phadi et al 2018:597). Yet the Waterberg ANC Region had remained staunch defenders of Zuma, and had taken on an increasingly rebellious stance vis-à-vis Mathale’s provincial executive. Indeed, the Thobejane saga was one thread of the broader political ructions at play between the regional and provincial ANC.

Kekana’s report ignited open conflict in this brewing cold war between the region and province. The ANC regional leadership, which backed Thobejane, read the Kekana report as an open challenge. Councillors testified to forensic investigators that the regional secretary personally visited the local ANC caucus, castigating them for supporting the report’s recommendations. His position was that they served at the pleasure of the region, and he demanded the disciplinary process be stopped (KPMG 2012:9). During the May 2011 elections, the Waterberg Region removed from the party’s nomination list a number of the councillors who had voted in favour of suspending Thobejane. In June, Thobejane was reinstated. And in the months that followed, the Region stepped up its attempts to have the MM removed, in open defiance of the provincial ANC. Caught between the regional and provincial party structures, the ANC caucus in the Mogalakwena Council was bitterly divided – with profound consequences for local residents who found basic services increasingly erratic and long-term infrastructure projects derailed (Phadi et al 2018:610).

At a moment when the province’s political authority looked to be increasingly uncertain, the mayor of Mogalakwena, Esther Mothibi, threw another paper missile. In September 2011, she produced a report in the council chambers which was not included in the formal agenda 24 hours beforehand, as protocol dictates. The document insisted that the MM’s contract was invalid, and recommended that his employment be terminated and affirmed by a declaratory order of court (MLM September 16, 2011). The contents of the mayor’s controversial report occasioned, for the first time in public, open splits in the ANC, who took the issue to a secret vote – an unprecedented development. Thirty-four councillors voted for the proposal, and 19 against – ten were ANC councillors and the balance from the opposition (MLM September 16, 2011). In response, Kekana called upon the MEC of CoGHSTA’s support (MLM September 23, 2011). While the grouping around premier Mathale were under growing threat, they nonetheless controlled access to provincial administrative levers. In a letter to the municipality, the MEC insisted that the mayor’s report was unprocedural, and demanded that attempts to cancel the MM’s contract be halted  (MLM    September  26,  2011).  The  mayor  and  her  supporters blatantly ignored the letter and proceeded with a court challenge.7 The department then commissioned KPMG to conduct a forensic investigation into alleged irregularities on the part of the mayor and Thobejane. The MEC personally attended the proceedings at which the forensic report was presented to the Council, the mayor and Thobejane were fired, and Tlhalefi Mashamaite was appointed as the new mayor (MLM March 16, 2012).

Yet events in 2013 would decisively signal the end of the Mathale grouping’s hold on posts of provincial authority: in March, the ANC National Executive Council (NEC) dissolved the provincial executive of Limpopo; in July, Cassel Mathale finally resigned as premier, and his allies in the provincial government were swept out of office, replaced by Zuma supporters. This would have dramatic consequences in Mogalakwena. The divisions between ANC councillors would become entrenched into a pro-Kekana and a pro-Mashamaite faction, and in the midst of this, a flurry of controversial documents were produced by each to validate their respective positions.

Just days before Mathale’s resignation, Mashamaite, the newly deployed mayor of Mogalakwena ambushed the MM with yet another ad hoc report which he read out during a special Council meeting (MLM July 12, 2013). The new report called once again for Kekana’s immediate suspension. The report was technically unprocedural: indeed, minutes indicate that 15 ANC and nine opposition councillors ‘requested that their names be recorded against the resolution as they have not seen the report as it was not reflected in the Council agenda’ (MLM July 12, 2013). Yet the mayor’s report had the full backing of the newly installed provincial ANC, and most councillors appear to have bowed to this authority. After a secret ballot, the mayor’s recommendation to suspend Kekana was passed (MLM July 12, 2012).

Two months later, however, 22 ANC councillors teamed up with the opposition in an effort to reinstate the MM, fuelled by allegations that as mayor, Mashamaite was involved in fraudulent activities in the MM’s absence. ‘The mayor acted on his own’, the report averred, ‘and did not have the approval of the Council to take a decision that the municipal manager must go home’ (MLM October 11, 2013). The report was discussed at a hastily-organised special Council meeting convened by the pro-MM councillors.

Aside from producing or commissioning reports, another strand of the deepening conflict involved attempts to delegitimise or invalidate the permissibility of documents produced by their opponents. In a court challenge he launched immediately after his suspension, for instance, Kekana noted the non-inclusion of the mayor’s report as an irregularity that nullified the resolution to have him suspended (Kekana v. Mogalakwena Local Municipality & Others, 37684/2013). And the report produced by the Kekana faction for the special council meeting declared the resolution to remove the MM ‘illegal’ since ‘[c]ouncillors were not granted the opportunity to apply their minds to the report and the resolution was forced on them’ (MLM October 11, 2013). There were also attempts by the mayor’s faction to scupper the planned special council meeting by interfering in the documentary procedures leading up to the meeting.

The Council secretariat, responsible for compiling and printing meeting agendas, told investigators that they had received a memo indicating that the speaker of the Council (a Kekana supporter) had been approached by ‘the majority of Council’ [the Kekana faction] to organise a special council meeting (KPMG 2014:61), and that they were to print the report produced by this faction as the (single-issue) agenda for the meeting. The decision had been taken while an acting MM, an ally of the mayor, had been away for the day. Learning of the meeting on her return, she immediately tried to put a stop to it. The acting MM delivered her own memo to the secretariat, insisting that the meeting was cancelled, and (in a counter- instruction) insisted that the agendas were to be withheld. Shortly after this development, the officers of the secretariat were confronted by pro- Kekana councillors demanding that they release the documentation. Their testimony to the KPGM investigators is recorded as follows:

The Councillors were apparently furious and threatened to hold them hostage until they gave them agendas. The Councillors spent about 45 minutes in their office before they left. [The Officers] were traumatised as they had never been in that kind of a situation and they had never seen the Councillors in that state of mind … On 11 October 2013 they reported for duty as usual and they explained to [the Chief Operations Officer] what transpired the previous day. [He] then instructed them to finish preparing agendas for the [requested] meeting. (KPMG 2014:61)

The councillors finally collected the agendas and then made their way to the council chambers, but discovered they were padlocked. Some councillors who participated in  the meeting claimed that the caretaker –  a relative of the mayor – had locked the door. They met in another room and, following the agenda, passed a resolution to renew Kekana’s contract as the MM. In addition, they agreed to hire the auditors, KPMG, to conduct a forensic investigation into the mayor’s activities, and retract court action which was pending against Willy Kekana, the municipal manager. But the spectre of irregularity would come back to haunt the decisions taken at the meeting – including the matter of the agenda. Shortly after the decision to renew the MM’s contract was passed, the MEC of CoGHSTA launched a court challenge which sought to declare invalid the resolutions taken at the meeting on the grounds of ‘procedural irregularities’ in the organisation of the meeting – including the issue of the distribution of the agenda – which had allegedly contradicted the municipality’s standing orders (MEC CoGHSTA v MLM, 70319/2013).

Consideration needs to be given to the position of the officials caught in the midst of the battle of documents. The Council secretariat, for instance, found that their duties became increasingly perilous as divisions in the municipality reached breaking point. They continued to record detailed minutes of meetings, capturing increasingly hostile exchanges in dialogical form, momentary departures from the otherwise dispassionate script, which captures something of the intensifying enmity. One particularly hostile meeting was minuted with the following preface, in bold letters: ‘NB: Councillors were shouting “order” continuously and making noise while the speaker was busy proceeding with the meeting’. A tense back and forth between councillors was captured along with running asides in brackets: ‘(The municipal manager called in the security guards and the councillors chased them away)’ (MLM November 26, 2013). When the mayor and his councillors were finally ejected from the municipal buildings, they demanded that the Council secretariat report for duty at a local hotel to compile minutes of their meetings. In the end, they decided to remain in the municipality, which they considered to be their legitimate place of employment (interviews with MLM Council Secretariat Officers, August 2015).8

The staff of the records division, guardians of the municipality’s document vault, also encountered frequent invasions in their day-to-day activities. They witnessed large swathes of documents being carted away by forensic investigators and attorneys. ‘I would fight with them’, PARI researchers were told by one clerk, ‘but then they would come back with a councillor or another manager and we had to let them in’ (interview with MLM records clerk, August 2015). The Records staff reported many original documents and confidential files disappearing this way – something they considered an affront to their professional integrity. The secretariat and Records clerks were drawn into the hostilities directly because of their role of documentary stewardship.

Constructing public heroes and villains

One of the biggest challenges that a Municipal Manager has to face is to fulfil his functions with honesty and integrity in accordance with the governing laws, and to keep the Municipal Council to which he reports, happy at the same time. The reason being that a Municipal Council, being the highest decision making body in a municipality, comprise [sic] of Councillors, who are often not highly educated people, but who collectively exercise a political power. They are easily influenced by political ideals which are very often not consistent with principles of good governance. Where the Municipal Manager cautions the Council against decisions that may be unlawful or which may have other undesirable consequences, as he is required to do, or where he resists interference or attempted interference by Councillors into his functions, he usually falls into disfavour with the Clors. The result is that there are consistent attempts to have him removed from office, mostly if not always without any or proper grounds. (Willy Kekana’s Founding Affidavit in Kekana v. Mogalakwena Local Municipality & Others, 37684/2013)

With council meetings descending into violence, and the now physical separation that prevailed between two factions of the Council, the competing narratives advanced in the Mogalakwena conflict now took place not in the council chambers, but within the public sphere. In the media, in judicial processes and in community protests that erupted over the Mogalakwena situation, various contradictory stories took flight. As this happened, documents proved key resources to bolster particular narrative performances with credibility. It was undoubtedly Kekana and his faction in the Council who were able to spin the most convincing public narrative. The key strands of the narrative that Kekana sought to propagate are evident in the extract of the founding affidavit set out above. In his much-repeated version, Kekana emerges as a qualified and responsible manager seeking to hold the line of accountability and neutrality in a troubled state institution beset by incompetent and avaricious politicians – he was a whistleblower calling out corruption and, in response, faced threats to his position. This story has become a stock-in-trade in post- apartheid corruption discourse – and perhaps especially so during the Zuma administration, which was characterised by increasingly ominous revelations of ‘state capture’, and widespread reports of bureaucrats being bullied by politicians.9 But while there was significant evidence to the accusations of malfeasance on the part of the mayor and his allies, including that contained in the KPMG report, the MM’s narrative framing devices – in particular, the ‘hero-versus-villain’ structure – obscured scrutiny of the MM’s rather more complicated relationship with power and politics.

The MM exercised considerable power to shape the public narrative, thanks in no small measure ‘to controlled access to that information … which could influence perceptions and evaluations of critical organizational uncertainty’ (Brown 1994:869). The documentary resources available to him as head of the administration provided key evidence to the media and judges of the High Court that he was the victim of an avaricious group bent on enriching themselves. Crucially, Kekana and his supporters in the Council were able to commission (and to guide) the forensic investigation process carried out by KPMG which, despite dubious methodologies, resulted in a report that could be weaponised in the public sphere.

Stoler (2002:101) describes how both documents and the narrative devices they carry function according to a ‘hierarchy of credibility’ – that is, documents are differentially able to effectively produce ‘truth claims’, depending on their provenance and the language they employ. In South African local government, so-called forensic reports occupy an elevated position in the documentary hierarchy of the state, and indeed in public perception. This stems from the widespread societal faith placed in the ‘neutrality’ and ‘scientific objectivity’ that ‘the audit’ promises. Michael Power (1996) traces the entrenchment of the auditing paradigm as a mode of ‘administrative control’ to the 1990s, the era of the ‘audit explosion’. Auditing has become ‘a keystone of good governance’ (Pierre, Peters and de Fine Licht 2018:731), and auditors have gone ‘beyond their traditional roles of “bookkeeping” and “guardians of legality,” to also evaluate broader issues of policy effectiveness and “value for money”’ (Jantz, Reichborn-Kjennerud and Vrangbaek 2015:962). Crucially, public servants, in their individual capacity, have also been corralled into the field of actuarial calculus, measured in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and risk (Power 1996:3).

The idea of the ‘audited subject’ dovetails with corruption discourse, which identifies and isolates deviance as a matter of individual morality, often to the neglect of broader structural determinants (see Ledger’s examination of ‘logics of appropriateness’ in this Focus Issue). In the context of intense political conflict within state institutions, corruption discourse has frequently been instrumentalised to clear out political  rivals (Bayart, Ellis and Hibou 1999). South Africa is no exception to this trend (Brunette 2017). While the audit promises a ‘scientific’ method for enumerating individual integrity and determining corruption, there are worrying signs that forensic auditors have been complicit in enforcing what might be considered ‘selective accountability’ in both the state and the corporate sector. Recent revelations of the role of KPMG in reaffirming dubious allegations of a (so-called) ‘rogue unit’ operating in the South African Revenue Service (SARS) have significantly muddied the once- spotless reputation of auditing firms (The Times September 15, 2017). And the complicity of other auditing firms in covering up corruption in controversial companies has produced thorny questions for the auditing profession (The Guardian May 29, 2018).

At Mogalakwena Local Municipality, the role of the forensic auditors who carried out an investigation into the mayor and other opponents of Kekana became the subject of intense dispute. The KPMG report detailed evidence of widespread irregularity on the part of the mayor, including doctored tender documents. But a number of questions emerge over the methodologies used by the auditors. These questions are put into sharp relief when set against Andrew Brown’s conclusions about a commission of inquiry report into an accident that took place on an oil rig in Britain. In Brown’s view, ‘inquiry sensemaking is better thought of as a craft activity that involves the skills of the bricoleur rather than the deductive logic of the laboratory chemist … [a matter of] invention not discovery’ (Brown 2005:107). Forensic auditors are faced with a difficult task, parachuted as they invariably are into an unknown setting. This is signalled as a virtue, bolstering the objectivity and independence of the final forensic report; on the other hand, it means that auditors are seldom fully aware of the interpersonal dramas and hidden political subtexts that they are participating in. It seems that investigators account for this by carefully acknowledging the limits of their investigation. The report on Mogalakwena acknowledges that:

KPMG has relied upon and assumed, without independent verification, the accuracy and completeness of any information provided to and/or gathered by KPMG whether from public sources or otherwise, and accordingly KPMG express no opinion or make (sic) any representation concerning the accuracy and completeness of any such information contained in this report. (KPMG 2014:65)

The report makes use of qualifiers like ‘it seems’, ‘it appears’ and ‘we were informed that’. In its conclusion, it makes clear that ‘any documents or information brought to our attention subsequent to the date of this report which could affect the findings listed above, will require our findings to be adjusted and qualified accordingly’ (KPMG 2014:65). And nestled amidst its terms and conditions is the following caveat:

The procedures carried out to date by [the auditors], do not constitute an audit, examination or review in accordance with generally accepted accounting standards and, therefore, [the auditors] do not express an opinion and/or make any other form of representation regarding the sufficiency of the procedures that [the auditors] performed. (KPMG 2014:65)

Of the British inquiry report, Brown noted that ‘the personal interests that may have influenced witnesses are not commented upon’ (Brown 2005:107). Indeed, KPMG offered no reflection on why they may have been brought in to conduct an investigation into the Mogalakwena municipality. Nor indeed was any effort made to interrogate the organisational or political context in which their audit was conducted – ‘its values, factions, cliques etc’ (Brown 2005:1591) – and how their activities may have helped fuel a political battle. Indeed, the testimony of the MM and those who were interviewed was accepted without critical consideration. Of course, this is not to suggest that the witnesses were simply not telling the truth. However, one can only wonder at the power dynamics at play when a low-level official like a secretariat officer is asked by their superior officer to go and speak to forensic auditors: these are clearly constrained conditions which will dictate a careful choice of words, not to mention selective memory.

The KPMG report does note the unwillingness of key actors to submit to questioning. The mayor, for instance, claimed that:

He was not aware of the appointment of … the forensic auditors; Council did not appoint any Forensic team to conduct an investigation into the matters of the Municipality … [the MM] should have communicated to him that a Forensic investigation was being conducted [but] he has not received any such communication … and he was therefore not prepared to meet with us’. (KPMG 2014:66)

Despite all of the caveats, what is reproduced in the KPMG report is effectively what Brown calls ‘a monological simplification’ of a highly complex set of dynamics in a contested institution beset by a plurality of interpretations. It made claims to authority through its packaging (slick layout designs brandished with the KPMG logo) and dependence on the language of the audit. In the British case, Brown noted that the authorial choices made by the inquiry team and the conclusions reached were ‘arbitrary and contestable’ (Brown 2004:107); in similar ways, the KPMG report into Mogalakwena Municipality should be considered ‘a contrived rhetorical product’ (Brown 2004:107).

Despite profound questions hanging over its approach, the report was harnessed to do important political work – although outside of the ANC structures, who were now set on removing Kekana and firing his allies in Council. Indeed, the broader provincial political context in which this report was produced were substantially changed from those which prevailed when the first KPMG investigation was instigated against Kekana’s opponents, Thobejane and the mayor, in 2012. That report had been commissioned by the Department of CoGHSTA, and had been swiftly acted upon. This report, by contrast, was instead perceived by the new provincial leadership as an act of defiance on the part of councillors who were refusing to accept the removal of Kekana. The 2014 report was roundly ignored by the Department of CoGHSTA and the ANC generally. Rather than acting against the mayor, the department instead sought to put the municipality under administration (MLM March 20, 2015), and thereby circumvent Kekana’s continuing administrative powers as municipal manager.

If the report failed to elicit support from the provincial government, it was nonetheless put to work in other forums. Within the institution, it played a galvanising role for the many managers and councillors who were supportive of the MM, and contributed to a sense of vindication for those, such as the speaker, who came to his defence. Outside the walls of the Municipality, it formed a central rallying cry of the campaign of the Mogalakwena Residents’ Association (MRA), a self-styled ‘social movement’ which came to the defence of the MM (See Phadi, Pearson and Lesaffre 2018). The MRA organised numerous gatherings on the streets of Mokopane as the conflict escalated, voicing their support for the MM and castigating his rivals as ‘looters’. The forensic report was cited on placards and in statements to newspapers (Noordelike Nuus September 5, 2014). And on Facebook, the leader of the MRA wrote: ‘A THUG IS A THUG. Those people you are defending are being pointed by KPMG … who are we to challenge that report?’ (Piet Pale March 18, 2014). Moreover, the local and national media that covered the Mogalakwena saga reproduced the findings of the KPMG report uncritically.

When the MRA launched a court application to declare invalid the CoGHSTA’s attempt to place the municipality under administration, they drew heavily on the report in their founding affidavit. In this and a number of other judicial processes, the report was regarded as having high evidentiary merit. In delivering his judgment for an interdict against the province’s attempted administration, the judge made reference to the forensic audit, arguing that as the mayor had remained silent and uncooperative with forensic investigators, ‘I must for the purposes of this application treat the allegations as established’ (MLM v. ANC PEC and others – Case No. 35248/14).

Ultimately, however, neither the forensic report nor the subsequent internal inquiry could save the MM and his supporters, who were removed with the backing of the provincial government. Once again, a document is only as powerful as the strength of the political coalition that backs it, and the mayor’s forceful return signalled how little real weight the report carried within broader ANC structures. The regional secretary made clear two months after the expulsion of the 22 councillors and the MM that:

The KPMG audit was commissioned by illegitimate councillors with a specific political agenda. The new Council will have to commission a new audit or at least a review of the KPMG report … If such an independent report implicates [the Mayor] or any other Councillor, the ANC will take measures on the strength of that report. (Noordelike Nuus February 26, 2015)

Nevertheless, the document continued to loom within the institution, kept alive in no small part by sustained opposition within Council and in the community who continued to cite the forensic report in their calls for the mayor and his supporters to be removed. This undoubtedly contributed to the eventual decision to recall the mayor which happened some months after the MM’s departure. A spokesperson for CoGHSTA was finally forced to acknowledge the forensic report: ‘We are doing a comprehensive investigation into the activities in that municipality. We take cognisance of the KPMG report and the auditor-general’s findings which had been released subsequently’ (IOL June 3, 2015).

It is clear that, over and above the content they convey, forensic reports constitute a talisman in the rituals of anti-corruption politics at the local level – in Brown’s terms, a ‘symbolic device’ (Brown 1994:828) – providing a powerful resource to legitimise a tale of heroes versus villains. Indeed, this weapon was turned against Kekana in the months after he was finally dismissed as municipal manager in December 2014. The municipality hired another auditing firm to conduct another forensic investigation. This time, auditors were urged to investigate what had been out of the narrow frame of the KPMG report: the activities of the municipal manager, Kekana, and allegations that he had drained the municipality’s discretionary fund, in part to pay for the lawyers and security guards that had worked to secure his position (interview with COO of MLM May 2016, see also Kekana v. Mogalakwena Local Municipality, J1229/2015).

Conclusion

Boje (1991) insists that organisations are ‘storytelling systems’, that the stories actors in an institution tell can shape the trajectory that it takes, and that there is material investment in the propagation of particular kinds of narratives. Documents constitute one set of story-telling instruments: they are ‘valuable political resources’ (Brown 1994:869), carrying both the procedural legitimacy and the recognised symbolic structures that have the power to transform a tale into an official story, a credible retelling legitimised by letterheads and signatures. For this reason, one level at which the conflicts of Mogalakwena Local Municipality unfolded was in the domain of documents, and as such documentary processes were the subject of intense contest.

The centrality of documents in many ways stands in contrast to some academic treatments and media portrayals of local government institutions as sites of lawlessness where the worst excesses of corruption and malfeasance are committed with impunity. The proliferation of competing documents by opposing political factions at Mogalakwena shows rather how the law was felt as an ever-looming presence . Over the course of the unfolding drama, legislative prescripts and the minutiae of procedure were slavishly invoked to cast some actions as ‘legal’ and ‘rational’, and to position others as ‘personal’ or ‘factional’. Administrative discourses form the field of action for actors of state, and the documents which carry them, and set in motion the machinery of the administration, form the very means by which power is both constituted and contested in state institutions.

This article furthermore sounds a note of caution about the tendency for anti-corruption discourse to simplify complex political dynamics into a binary opposition between good versus evil. We saw in Mogalakwena how directly opposing narratives were drawn from the same discursive well: the language of ‘good governance’ and ‘the audit’. Yet outside of these narrative frames, and beyond the monological stories that actors in institutions of state propagate and perform, lies a welter of competing versions of events which resist the simplistic dualism of heroes versus villains. As political commentator Aubrey Matshiqi, put it: ‘The internecine battles in the ANC and the state are godless battles between angels with horns and devils with halos. What they have in common is a God complex and a penchant and propensity for Orwellian manipulation’ (Sunday Times August 20, 2017).

If documents form such central instruments in advancing competing narratives in state institutions, potential instruments in strategies of ‘Orwellian manipulation’, then it is imperative that state documents – including those produced by third-party entities – be made publicly available. Access to documents is a democratic imperative. Yet requests for official documents in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) have achieved notoriously poor returns for activists and academics (see Access to  Information Network 2019). Moreover, most of the documents cited in this article were not readily accessible, and in fact required careful and extensive negotiations between PARI researchers and the municipal administration.10 Large swathes of official documents which are central to how power is exercised and contested in state institutions remain locked away. Opening state archives to public scrutiny constitutes one important step towards ensuring that the ‘complex and ever-shifting power plays’ (Harris 2002:85) that unfold among state functionaries are balanced by democratic impulses.

Notes
  1. Kekana was given a five-year contract, a contravention of 56(4)(1) of the Municipal Systems Act, which stipulates that a municipal manager’s contract should not run beyond one year of a new council being voted Given that he was appointed in 2009, and municipal elections were held in May 2011, this should have meant that Kekana ceased to be the municipal manager in May 2012. This would be the point of challenge which Kekana’s opponents would invoke in court.
  2. The department responsible for oversight of local government at a provincial At a national level, local government falls under the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA).
  3. As opposed to the mayoral executive system, in which the council elects from amongst its members an executive mayor in whom executive authority is vested. The executive mayor is assisted by a mayoral committee, solely appointed by the executive mayor from amongst the municipal councillors.
  4. See endnote
  5. In a later media report, Thobejane claimed that he had rescinded the contract with the law firm because it had been excessively overcharging the municipality (a sum greater than the debt itself), in cahoots with the MM (see Molefe in Sowetan, March 15, 2012). When questioned about these inflated payments, Kekana simply replied that advocates are generally The report evaded any questions that may have arisen over the role of the law firm and its relationship with the MM.
  6. The reasons for this are not entirely It may be that the allegations the MM made against Thobejane were hard to defend. It is worth remembering too that at this stage Kekana had strong political backing from the provincial executive.
  7. According to the later KPMG findings (2012:13), councillors only became aware of the existence of the MEC’s letter through a report on Thobela
  8. The mayor’s faction began producing their own minutes, mimicking the official template – although using an unconventional font, Comic This suggests that minutes are not simply regarded as a tiresome ritual, but form another source of documentary evidence to ratify a meeting as ‘procedurally correct’ and the resolutions taken as legitimate actions of state.
  9. In another study with bureaucrats across state institutions, claims of ‘political interference’ emerged routinely, even in cases where the intervention of a politician may have been justified (see Pearson and Ndlovu 2018).
  10. This included the drafting of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between PARI and the Mogalakwena Local Municipality, with the assistance of legal expertise, which finally allowed for access and publication of the documents
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Archival Records

KPMG (2012) CoGHSTA Limpopo: forensic investigation into allegations of irregularities at Mogalakwena Municipality, March 15, 2012.

KPMG (2014) Mogalakwena Local Municipality: forensic investigation into allegations of irregularities at Mogalakwena Municipality, Report on Factual Findings. 5 February.

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MLM (2011) ‘Decline of Governance at Mogalakwena Local Municipality’ – Letter from MEC CoGHSTA to MLM Mayor’, September 26, 2011.

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MLM (2012) Minutes of Special Council Meeting 12 July 2013. Mogalakwena Local Municipality, Mokopane.

MLM (2013) ‘Report: Case Against the Municipality: SW Kekana / Mogalakwena Municipality’. Agenda to Special Council Meeting 11 October 2013. Mogalakwena Local Municipality, Mokopane.