Ghost-busting with Mr Fixit

Jeremy Gordin wonders how the transport minister can tell ghost workers apart from normal ones at Prasa

In 2010, while working at the journalism department at Wits, I became for some four weeks and for my sins the News Editor for a visiting party of about 15-20 Chinese students.

The plan was that, under my wise and temperate [i] guidance, they would write articles related to the 2010 FIFA World Cup which was then happening; and I would try to have those articles, if they passed muster, placed in various local newspapers. (I had worked on and been fired from most, if not all, of the publications, so I knew the news editors, etc.)

The students were all ostensibly pleasant and mainly interested in getting to see soccer matches, which made eminent sense, and also deeply excited about their completely unfettered access to Facebook, apparently not something allowed in Beijing. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

They were not, however, journalism students per se. They hailed from the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), which I later learned was an establishment mainly geared to those who would later become “diplomats” and was thus more open to the children of the “well-connected” than the working class [ii]. They also had a couple of lecturers/commissars who accompanied them, also ostensibly pleasant – until, of course, one, as it were, crossed chopsticks with them.

From what I recall, the overall “programme” was considered to have worked quite well. But from my point of view, qua journalist, it was not entirely what you might call smooth sailing. The main issue was that the principle of audi alteram partem, “hear the other side” or “no person should be unheard,” was as foreign to those students as Mandarin to me; as was the concept of libel.

When, for example, I was presented with an article about some Bafana Bafana player’s former partner (female) who said that he had spent all his time off the pitch beating her mercilessly, and I tried to explain that one couldn’t put in such a story for publication, without at the very least having spoken to him, well, I might as well have been speaking isiXhosa.

A parallel experience was that when I tried to share my great wisdom – about, say, libel – it was as though I was suggesting that Hu Jintao was a rabid capitalist.

I was confronted with beady stares, the exchanged, rapid-fire and aggressive comments between students and commissars, often rising considerably in volume [iii], and once (I think) one commissar even made a complaint about my imperialist, western attitude.

In short, my previously unblemished relationship with the Chinese nation (all 1,4 billion and counting) was jolted [iv]. Maybe I was “traumatised” – having encountered, albeit in a minor way, the stony and obdurate face of incipient Chinese hegemony – that which shall rule over the world my children shall live in, after the Russkis and the USA have destroyed one another, or their economies at any rate, which they seem to be busy doing now.

But enough quasi-metaphysical guff, I hear you cry; and I agree. What I wanted to say was that when I encountered two days ago the audio/video component (voices and faces) of a recent Guardian story from Shanghai, which has been under a Covid lockdown for five weeks, I thought I’d seen a ghost – the result of my trauma, as it were.

And, by golly, I had – and so had some Chinese mortuary workers. Well, almost.

What happened was that an elderly nursing home resident was declared dead, put in a body bag, and taken to a waiting van – if we say this person is dead, said a doctor and coroners, then he’s dead, screw the audi alteram partem stuff.

But then some mortuary workers noticed he was still alive [v].

The incident, which took place last Sunday afternoon, was filmed by onlookers and, as the article notes, footage quickly spread online in China, “sparking a furious backlash in the city”.

“The incident was confirmed by the Putuo district government, which said that investigations had begun. The Shanghai Supervisory Commission and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said five officials, including the director of the care home and a doctor, had been stood down and put under investigation.

“Another local Party official was reprimanded. Shanghai Xinchangzheng Nursing Home has apologised, while the funeral home reportedly praised its employees for noticing the person was still alive and rewarded them with 5,000 yuan (about R12 000) each.”

But now, don’t laugh or smile, even if you’re doing so sadly – because here’s the thing. We too have ghosts. They’re just of a different kind.

More than a month ago, Transport minister Fikile Mbalula told parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) that the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) has uncovered 3 000 “ghost workers” in its “system” – i.e., people who were receiving full salaries but didn’t seem to exist.

According to Mbalula, Prasa stopped paying certain salaries in December, and no-one had come forward complaining about not being paid. He said the “grand scam” was discovered during a campaign called Operation Ziveze, aimed at uncovering irregularities at Prasa.

Mbalula is a sharp man. He said the “discovery” of ghost workers meant “there was a system of corruption within the human resources department, and somebody had orchestrated a scam to steal money. In a normal company you can’t afford to have one ghost worker. We have 3 000,” he pointed out.

Mbalula said forensic work was being carried out to get a more detailed verification of who was paid, including looking at bank accounts through which payments were made. Not a bad idea.

But then a few weeks later, Wayne Duvenhage of The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) said on radio there was something ghostly about the alleged ghost workers uncovered at Prasa. He said he suspected Mbalula might not have had his facts straight. Mbalula? Nah, c’mon Wayne.

“I’m getting a sense,” said Duvenhage, “that this might not be true... and this might [just] be [Mbalula trying to give] the new board some ‘relevance’ ... What we’re saying is that maybe the minister has got this wrong, maybe he has been misled.”

Duvenhage wanted Mbalula to present “hard evidence” to Scopa to back up his “vague” claims. “The story is too glib, it’s too vague and there’s not enough detail for us to say this is an issue. If it is, then it needs to be investigated and a lot more detail must be given to Scopa and the public. If it isn't, we need to know why.”

About three weeks ago, Mbalula revised his numbers of ghosts. He said there were still more than 2 000 ghost workers – the reason for his original figure of 3 000 having dropped being that “Others are coming forward, saying they were on maternity and sick leave”.

I have to say that, when Mbalula made his original announcement, it occurred to me that maybe many employees had died – which was why they hadn’t complained about not being paid. But I didn’t want to be crass.

But here’s what worries me more. According to the chairperson of the Prasa Board Leonard Ramatlakane, Prasa is said to have 17 200 employees. Now, let’s say you have about 4 000 employees who don’t in the normal course of things do much at all (I’m being conservative, like a good accountant); I mention these folk because, as I understand the situation, there’s not really much going on at Prasa anyway, there being hardly any trains running.

How then, in terms of productivity, do you differentiate between those people and so-called ghost employees? What’s the difference between paying, on the one hand, 3 000 ghosts, and, on the other, 4 000 people who don’t do anything anyway? I’m just trying to explain that there are ghosts and then there are ghosts.

I’m also concerned that Mbalula really needs some assistance. Apparently, the rail agency recorded a loss of R1,9 billion in the 2020/21 financial year. Discussing this at the Scopa briefing, Mbalula said the cause of this was inter alia that Prasa’s fare revenue had plummeted by R900 million. He explained this by talking about “infrastructure damage,” which had taken trains out of service for extended periods, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Fikile maibru, if you have no trains, no railway lines, and decimated stations, I think it stands to reasons that there’s not going to be much fare revenue. What am I missing?

All this is exacerbated by a story in the Citizen yesterday that an investigative report into the illegal appointment of staffers in the Free State’s Mangaung Metro Municipality has allegedly shown that Minister Mbalula’s older brother Jabu is but one of the ghost staffers “who apparently costs the council millions in salaries every month, while never reporting for a single day of work”.

According to the Citizen, “most of the African National Congress (ANC) cadre deployments [in Mangaung] took place after the 2021 municipal elections, when individuals identified as ‘skeletal [skeleton, surely?] staff’ were signed up, often without appointment letters or contracts, in violation of the Municipal Systems Act. The ghost workers received a total of R2,5 million in salaries in January...”

I can’t tell you more – because the Citizen has apparently not yet received the memo from Elon Musk about “free speech” and hides its best stuff behind a pay wall.

Everything is just far too ghostly – and maybe even traumatic – for me.

Recently we’ve even heard from the ghost of Cyril Ramaphosa circa 1982-91, telling us the workers have spoken and we must listen. This is presumably the case, even if they’re ghosts. Oh dear.


[i] Ha-ha.

[ii] Wikipedia: BFSU alumni are well known in Chinese diplomacy circles such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Around 400 ambassadors and over 1,000 counselors graduated from BFSU. BFSU is thus known as the “Cradle of Diplomats”. BFSU was affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from its establishment in 1941 ...

[iii] I might of course have had it all wrong; the student and commissar might have been saying what a sweet person I was; all Chinese language varieties are (I believe) tonal – i.e., bound to sound discordant and even angry to my ears, accustomed as they are to the monotone sounds of Seffrican English; but I don’t think I had it wrong.

[iv] When I was eight, my best friend was Chinese; I had been welcomed and nourished in the bosom of his family. This was in Saigon, South Vietnam, as it was then, where my father worked for the World Health Organisation, and my number one friend was one David Phu from Cholon, the Chinatown of Saigon.

[v] This is why, by the way, I don’t want to be cremated; you just never know.