January 12 2012 at 11:33

It there’s anyone who needs a bit of good luck in 2012 it’s Solomon Zongo – last year could hardly have ended more badly for him.

Zongo was involved in litigation against the Eastern Cape Education Department, and on the second last day of the year he heard that he had lost his case.

Any of us could have found ourselves in the same boat. He had done nothing wrong; he believed he had been wronged by the department and went to court to defend his rights.

It started in 2002 when he applied for a promotion as principal of Mzamo Junior Secondary School.

He was interviewed in August and the following month the circuit manager, a Mr Dweba, told him that he’d got the job.

Soon afterwards, the all-important letter arrived, headed, “Re: appointment: yourself”. It appeared to inform him that his application had been successful and that with effect from September 12 he would be paid on a new salary scale as principal.

I say “appeared to inform him” because if you read it carefully – and with the benefit of hindsight – the letter is ambiguous.

It starts: “I have pleasure to inform you that the department has approved your appointment”, then continues with information about the new salary and fringe benefits. But tucked away in the text are two crucial lines.

First, he’s told the date of appointment is September 12, 2002, but on the next line comes this: “Date of appointment will be with effect from the date you assume duties provided it is after the approval by the department.”

If I had received such a letter I would not have known whether there was a problem or whether the letter was merely ineptly written in jargon typical of bureaucrats.

Zongo, wanting to believe the letter meant what it said, happily decamped to Mzamo where, on September 25, he was met by the circuit manager, who welcomed him and introduced him to the governing body and the staff.

Two months later, however, there had still been no change in his salary and on November 13 the circuit manager told him the dreadful truth: his appointment had been challenged by two other applicants; he should go back to his previous school – and his previous job – until the matter was sorted out. If he didn’t, he was “likely to lose his post”.

Persuaded by his boss, he did as he was told (what is it with teachers that they prize meekness so highly?). It’s not difficult to imagine the embarrassment he felt when he returned, especially since neither the school hierarchy nor the governing body expected him.

They refused to let him back without “something in writing”. Zongo was then reduced to further meekness, being sent from one departmental official to another until eventually a letter was formulated.

Headed “Withdrawal of appointment”, it began: “It is with regret I inform you that your appointment as principal… has been withdrawn” and ended: “The department highly regrets the inconvenience that will be made by this decision.”

The “inconvenience” included a new round of interviews for the job in January 2004. Again, he was instructed to be obedient and submit himself for consideration or face “losing his job”. When he discovered another candidate had been appointed as principal, Zongo finally woke up and realised that he should seek advice from someone other than his boss about how to respond to the “withdrawal” of his appointment. That’s how the matter eventually came to court by way of a claim for breach of contract.

It was all in vain, however, for the court accepted evidence from the department that the appointment letter had been written by an official who was not authorised to make the decision; it had thus been invalid and there had been no contract to breach.

There can be few candidates for promotion who, on receiving an apparently official congratulatory letter, enquire whether it is genuine.

You have to feel sorry for Zongo. Even the court took pity on him as far as it could: if only the department had stipulated in its withdrawal letter that the official who wrote the appointment notice had not been authorised to do so, Zongo would probably not have gone to court over the matter, said Judge Fatima Dawood.

Therefore, even though the department won the case, Zongo should not have to pay the department’s legal costs.


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