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There has been a pattern since the Mbeki era, of Directors-General falling out with their political masters, the Ministers. In some of these cases, the DG has been incompetent, or worse; in other cases there has been a fundamental difference of temperament or outlook; and in others again a DG has come a cropper for daring to insist on good governance, a separation of political and administrative roles, or the due exercise of accountability.

Mary Metcalfe, DG of the new Department of Higher Education and Training, and her Minister, Blade Nzimande, General Secretary of the South African Communist Party and a member of the powerful National Working Committee of the ruling African National Congress, were the last politico-bureaucratic couple one would have expected to fall into such marital difficulties. Yet yesterday, after a short weekend of leaking news, denial and uncertainty, the Minister and the DG released a brief and opaque statement confirming that Mary would be leaving her post as DG no later than April next year. Some story was concocted that it had always been the intention that she would leave once she had set up the new Department, and that that time had now come, but no-one with two brain cells to rub together could fall for that one. Something, clearly, has happened – something, in fact, has gone badly, awfully wrong – but what?

It is a secret. Why, I don’t know. To save someone, or some people, embarrassment, seems obvious enough. But it is in the public interest, presumably, that we should know.

Meanwhile, what can one say, under the circumstances? That I am shocked and surprised? Deeply dismayed? – certainly, yes, all of the above, and so no doubt are many others, at least, those outside the senior ranks of the Department, the Minister’s advisers and DG’s confidantes.

One wants, somehow, to say more – to express indignation, even outrage; though the ignoble thought arises, even as I think this, that I myself am doing some work for the Department, and should probably exercise some caution. More defensibly, and sensibly, however, I have to ask myself, what can I reasonably say, knowing next to nothing about the actual circumstances and facts of the matter?

What I can say, though, is this. Fact is, I have known each of the Ministers and DG’s of Education since 1994 (I dont know the current Minister of Basic Education, however); and I do know, from experience, that Mary is the first and only DG properly to understand the neglected and enfeebled Further Education and Training colleges sector; the first to address the challenges of its development with honesty, integrity, and real foresight; and the first, I suspect, to command widespread respect and even admiration, within the sector and amongst key stakeholders, for her forthrightness and leadership in this arena. Respect, I say, which is not to be confused with fear and loathing.

Mary, quite simply, has been the first DG since 1994 to promise deep and meaningful change, and to grasp the importance of building a colleges system.

Whatever the merits or demerits of her case, Mary’s loss as DG will set back this reform agenda, if only because it will confirm, once more, the settled view that people – Ministers, DG’s, advisers, funders and consultants – come and go; initiatives are launched with fanfare only to sink at the harbour entrance; and nothing, in the end, changes.

I have to add that I feel for Mary personally, too – mild mannered, soft spoken, a visionary with a deep and nuanced grasp of the detail, Mary worked like a true Stakhanovite in the mills and furnaces of government, to advance the cause of education, skills and higher learning. Beyond the personal, and the specific instance, the turn of events seems emblematic, also and more broadly, of a country where the lines between state and party are blurring, where partisan loyalty and arse-licking trump professionalism and competence, where those licking the arses above them only too-readily dig their heels into the hungry faces below them, kicking them down to hell like fallen angels.

According to the Business Day today, the current tally is as follows: the DG’s of Public Enterprises, Rural Development and Land Reform, and the COO in the Presidency, all have resigned in the past 14 months. The DG in the Department of Labour, a vulgar buffoon and populist, has been suspended. The DG for Communications has been dismissed. The DG in the Presidency has been transferred.

Mary Metcalfe’s going does none of us, friends, citizens, countrymen, a favour.