Tuesday, August 9, 2022

BR corruption investigation lost in translation

A misplaced word nearly derailed a Botswana Railways probe that was concluded last Friday. Even on the last day, some staff members remained confused about exactly what the committee was supposed to do and others suggested a cover-up. However, no unethical conduct is apparent; the use of ‘and’ instead of ‘regarding’ appears to have been the problem.

When the committee began its two-week assignment on February 15, Alex Massie, the director of corporate services, asked employees through a staff notice to give evidence ‘on the alleged maladministration, corruption and incorrect disposal of some of the rail equipment.’ The notice also asked staff to ‘give the committee the necessary support and cooperation in order to allow them to carry out their duties quickly and smoothly. Staff members who are prepared to give evidence are encouraged to come forward.’

Thinking they were giving the committee support and cooperation, staff members came forward and presented accounts of what they perceived to be instances of maladministration and corruption. A few short days later, Massie issued a second notice that stated that committee members had “expressed concern” that individuals appearing before them were not presenting issues relating to their mandate.

“They will not listen to staff grievances. You are kindly reminded that only issues relating to engineering or rolling stock matters and disposal of equipment are areas that the committee requires evidence to. Therefore, if you have no knowledge in these areas, please do not register to give evidence,” says the second staff notice.

The background to the investigation is that during a meeting between the Botswana Railways Workers Union and the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport and Communications, Mabua Mabua, issues of irregularities concerning rolling stock came up. The most unusual allegation was of wagons having been buried over 10 years ago to literally conceal evidence.

On the basis of that information, Mabua ordered an investigation. Terms of reference subsequently drawn up limited themselves to this issue. When the investigating committee started work on February 15, its expectation was that it would hear evidence limited to allegations of corruption and maladministration around rolling stock. The problem though was that the staff notice sent out to employees said that the committee’s role was “to carry out investigations on the alleged maladministration, corruption and incorrect disposal of some of the rail equipment.” None of the confusion that ensued would have happened if the author of the notice had used ‘regarding’ instead of ‘and.’

While a simple correction would have sufficed, the second notice does not own up to the mistake made in the first but impossibly ‘reminds’ staff of a vital detail they were never aware of in the first place. This mistake was costly both in terms of finance and time as the committee had to suffer through irrelevant testimonies from people who had travelled from their duty stations to the BR headquarters in Mahalapye.

By not coming clean, the second notice could have served to poison relations between staff and management. Some staff members are still convinced that the company wants to suppress information that would cost some managers their jobs.

As late as Friday, one BR employee was adamant that the exclusion of prospective witnesses with knowledge of maladministration and corruption unrelated to rolling stock effectively amounted to a cover-up. The employee further argues that narrowing the scope of the investigation means that corruption in other departments is being ignored.

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