Editorial, Business Day, 5 October 2001

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From the word go there was a war of words between Buthelezi and Masetlha

The war of words between Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his director-general, Billy Masetlha, began as soon as Masetlha took up the post early last year.

It has worsened to the extent that the department has been unable to carry out its main functions, including immigration control and implementing laws.

Collapsing border-control systems and lack of staff capacity have been Buthelezi's song in every budget speech in Parliament.

The minister insists that Masetlha has not even signed a performance contract. Should Buthelezi's claims be true, it would mean that all financial spending Masetlha authorised as the head of department is illegal.

Parliament's portfolio committee chairman, Aubrey Mokoena, has asked the Public Service Commission to check Masetlha's employment status.

Mokoena has complained several times that tension between Masetlha and Buthelezi affects the department's work, seriously affecting the committee.

Last year the committee invited Masetlha to make a presentation on the immigration bill. He did not arrive, and wrote a letter to apologise and say Buthelezi told him not to attend the meeting. Although he held the committee in high esteem, "it would not be in anyone's interests to undermine the minister", he said.

Buthelezi instead sent home affairs deputy director-general Ivan Lambinon to the meeting, prompting Mokoena to remark angrily: "I am not mincing my words, if we order a hamburger, we do not expect a hot dog. As a portfolio committee we know what we are doing and expect no interference from Pretoria."

The constitution empowers parliamentary committees to summon individuals and institutions to give evidence or produce documents under oath. Buthelezi's behaviour was seen as a direct infringement on the separation of powers, which allows Parliament to exercise its oversight function without interference from the executive.

In another incident, the committee invited Masetlha to address it on the immigration bill. Buthelezi arrived uninvited, saying there was no need for Masetlha to make the presentation as he was not present when the white paper on international migration was drafted.

While Masetlha still insists that he has signed an employment contract with the department, Buthelezi wrote to President Thabo Mbeki last month, urging him to intervene. Now he will not discuss the subject, saying it was "highly sensitive".

Buthelezi said in a recent letter to Business Day that he forwarded a signed contractual offer to Masetlha on June 23, after Mbeki persuaded him to, but Masetlha failed to countersign it. "He has not signed it since then and has sat on it since then." Masetlha's term at the department expired on June 20.

This week, Buthelezi told Parliament he was shocked to read in Business Day that Masetlha issued a circular ordering authorities at SA border posts to either turn back or detain asylum seekers trying to enter the country.

Buthelezi said he wrote to Masetlha, asking him to provide details of the circular, but there was no response.

Masetlha says he informed Buthelezi beforehand. He admitted issuing the circular after the UN High Commission for Refugees warned of "irregular movement" of refugees from one country to another. "We have nothing against people seeking asylum in SA, but this they must do through proper channels."

Buthelezi distanced himself from Masetlha's circular.

Sources close to Buthelezi say he is unhappy about the way the African National Congress-led government has treated him. He recently told the portfolio committee he did not understand why he was treated "suspiciously" as he was "just a loyal civil servant", not pushing his Inkatha Freedom Party's agenda.

His former deputy, Lindiwe Sisulu, recently became intelligence minister, replaced by another ANC heavyweight, Charles Nqakula. Masetlha is a former ANC intelligence operative.

The cabinet shot down Buthelezi's recent bid to establish an independent immigration service board, with special powers to handle immigration matters, on grounds that it should fall directly under the public service.

It is not yet clear whether Buthelezi will let Masetlha make his long-overdue presentation.

Mokoena accepts that Buthelezi's special adviser, Mario Ambrosini, will always be part of the committee, listening lest the chairman libels his principal.