POWER BEHIND CYRIL’S THRONE
Phindile Baleni takes helm at presidency
● The first female director-general in the presidency and secretary of cabinet, Phindile Baleni, may be soft spoken, but when she opens her mouth she exudes authority.
Baleni is SA’s most senior public servant. President Cyril Ramaphosa promised a government that delivers quality services on time and without corruption, and he now relies on Baleni to transform rhetoric into reality.
The 53-year-old mother of three succeeds Cassius Lubisi, who retired in September. This week, the former director-general in the office of Gauteng premier David Makhura hit the ground running with meetings across key sectors of society.
“My focus is making sure that the rest of government integrates, co-ordinates and coheres in delivering on the mandate that the political principals are going to deliver on,” Baleni told the Sunday Times in an interview on Friday.
Her goals in the role are informed by the National Development Plan as well as the central components of the state of the nation address. In the short term this will involve building on the existing foundation as well as refining systems and processes in order to strengthen state capacity. In the long term, she hopes to craft and environment where the ability of government to deliver on its mandate is improved through its systems, processes and most importantly, the people. The plan is still evolving.
However, Baleni was guarded about how she plans to transform the engine of government from one that has often stalled to one that runs like a well-oiled machine.
“I need to understand the environment I am walking into, I need to understand the expectations,” she said. I might think I know what I am here to do, but I now need to square up the expectations to make sure that what I understand and what the expectations are coincide, and adjust accordingly.”
However, she was glad to echo Ramaphosa’s tough talk on corruption, saying she expects managers and directors-general to “act in concert” with her in ensuring accountability.
She said Ramaphosa had set up and resourced all the state entities that deal with corruption to act. The Public Finance Management Act, she said, provides the tools needed to speedily prevent, detect, investigate and resolve wrongdoing.
“When the PPE corruption happened, it was detected and investigations were instituted because we were able to pick up that things were not going right,” she said.
“So the president has made sure that every component of dealing with corruption has the resources it requires and people have been given the mandate to move.
“They have been enabled and proclamations for the Special Investigating Unit have been signed where they are needed, the National Prosecuting Authority has been given a line of march, including targets for them to get to the people that are doing the wrong things.
“But managers, more importantly, director-general’s, that I will be leading must deal with the frontline measures to prevent malfeasance and mete out appropriate consequences .”
It was under Baleni’s watch that Gauteng’s PPE corruption scandal erupted last year. It led to the sacking of Bandile Masuku as health MEC and the suspension of presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko for the role her late husband, Thandisizwe Diko, allegedly played in the misconduct.
Having developed the strategy for the province’s Covid-19 response, Baleni was infuriated. “By the time it went to the newspapers, we had been investigating it for six weeks because we picked it up,” she said. “We then activated the full toolkit of dealing with this.
“It hit deep, because if indeed a health worker ... gets infected because they didn’t have PPE or had PPE of poor quality, that’s not right.
“It did hit me personally ... everybody thinks I am soft, tiny and a woman but these teeth bite and that is when these teeth bit. People realised that, and that is when the fists went out and people were knocked out. It was a tough thing to do; it needed to be done.
“It felt like a big betrayal. The last time I got this angry was in the ’80s during the struggle and people betrayed others. That is the extent of the emotion. But we will deal with them, one by one, step by step, and they will have to bear the consequences.”
Baleni, who is married to former unionist Frans Baleni, a friend of Ramaphosa, laughed off any suggestion of nepotism.
“My father’s name is Nzimande. I have been called Blade’s daughter, Blade’s cousin, Blade’s niece. Where does it begin, where does it end? When a man gets appointed, when Frans was appointed to the board of Petro SA, they did not say anything about his wife,” she said.
We will deal with them, one by one, step by step
Director-general in the presidency on the corrupt