Nicole Fritz: Honoured Only in Death, Babita Deokaran Deserved Far More

26 August 2021

We talk a lot in this country about public service, or more especially its absence. Those who captured the state did so in disguise: wearing the attire of public service. And so you can forgive us for being fairly cynical, for thinking public service is all just subterfuge – a ruse by which enrichment of a few, not service to the greater public, is pursued.

Holding that view would however be to ignore how truly exceptional many of South Africa’s public servants are. One of those was Babita Deokaran, chief director of financial accounting in the Gauteng Department of Health. Her courageous service seems to have required that she pay the ultimate price: on Monday morning she was gunned down outside her home in Johannesburg, having just returned from dropping off her daughter at school.

That killing bears all the hallmarks of a hit – the Daily Maverick reports that multiple shots were fired at Deokaran at point-blank range through her car window and that no valuables, including her phone and laptop, were taken form the car.

Deokaran was at the time of her murder a witness in the investigation conducted by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) into the PPE procurement scandal in the Gauteng Department of Health. But it wasn’t only in relation to the PPE matter that Deokaran gave evidence. The SIU has indicated that she had been a witness for some time, trying to secure a turnaround of a department that has seemed only to lurch from one inhumane corruption-related scandal to another.

That contribution earned praise from Gauteng Premier, David Makhura on her death: “She took to heart the call to bring perpetrators of corruption and looting of public resources to book …The result of her good deeds led to successful dismissals within the department and saw the institution of civil claims to recover public funds from businesses and government officials responsible for malfeasance and corruption.”

But any pretence that Deokaran was a much-valued, cherished employee within the Gauteng health department is a lie. She is said to have been harassed at the time of her death by senior officials in the department and was not protected by the department head.

Last year, facing the most dubious of misconduct charges as the PPE procurement was taking place, she was suspended. As she explained: “Once all the PPE orders etc were done and some payments made, they dropped all charges against the two supply chain directors [who had also been suspended] and called them back to work. They offered the payments director [who, facing harassment, had resigned] to come back to work on a one year contract and the moved me to Jhb Health District.”

“My assessment of the situation is that they wanted us out of the way because if these were real charges, why are they not pursuing them. I also see they do not want me back at the Province as they see me as an obstacle in payments they want to make to certain companies.”

Certainly it seems someone or some people didn’t want her back at all. And while she will be hailed in her death, she never received in her lifetime the recognition that she should have for the conscientious, exemplary service she provided the public.

Instead, as with so many courageous public servants who have sought to do their jobs the reward she saw was only struggle: having to fight for job security and to fight off spurious misconduct allegations, harassment and intimidation.

State capture has given South Africa a seemingly endless roll of shame. It has also given us a roll of honour. While perhaps of little comfort to the immediate and extended family who grieve her, Babita Deokaran is among those on this roll of honour.

Nicole Fritz is CEO of Freedom Under Law.

This opinion piece was published first in Business Day, on the 25th August 2021, available here.