THE GOVERNOR CAPES INTERVIEW | Darrin Henry
Mark Capes, Governor of St Helena Island from 2011-2016, has probably overseen four and a half of the most momentous years of this British Overseas Territory’s history, Napoleon’s exile aside, of course.
The building of the airport and the first airplane landing on St Helena, malicious allegations of child abuse levelled against the island and the roll-out of digital TV and mobile phones have all taken place on Mr Capes’ watch.
During his tenure he surprised (and upset some) elected members by dissolving Legislative Council early, lit a Commonwealth beacon on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and led two trade missions to South Africa.
In my previous job as a journalist with SAMS I have photographed the governor many times. I also interviewed him twice and was surprised that he never ducked any of my questions or asked me to re-phrase. I use the word ‘surprised,’ because this was something I experienced with other managers or directors on St Helena.
This in part, prompted me to request an interview with Mr Capes before he left, but there was a bigger reason.
I’ve come to realise Governors are a big part of St Helena culture. They are in a position to exert significant influence over the island’s direction, yet one-on-one, open and frank, on the record interviews are rare.
So, over a cup of coffee, surrounded by packing boxes at Plantation House with a light drizzle of rain outside on the window, we sat down to discuss the ups and downs of being Governor of St Helena just a week before his departure.
The Best Moments As Governor of St Helena
We warmed up with a “highlights as governor” question.
Unsurprisingly, the airport topped the list. The governor recalled announcing the project from the courthouse steps in November 2011. Then, various milestones during the project itself which included the filling of Dry Gut and him detonating probably the largest explosion on the island.
“And then of course last September, 15th, when we had the first aeroplane land at the new airport; that was a very special moment. Special because there was so much emotion at Prosperous Bay, nearly half the island turned out to witness that, old and young. People were really excited, some were in tears. For many people that was the point at which it all became very real; that the dawning of a new chapter really was coming very soon, so that was a wonderful day; a great moment.”
The French Navy’s, ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ task group visit in April 2014 with their two warships is another “very vivid memory.” The Helicopter Dock (LHD) Mistral and Stealth Frigate (FLF) La Fayette enjoyed a successful one day visit with a programme of colourful events, including a ceremony at Napoleon’s Tomb in full battledress and weapons. Mr Capes smiled as he remembered the “extraordinary moment when French troops sang the British national anthem in English and then we all sang La Marseillaise.”
The bicentennial celebrations of Napoleon’s arrival last year marked by the visit of the French ambassador, Jean Mendelson, also stands out.
“Those are some of the highlights. But, there are many, many more.”
Recruitment Problems For St Helena
There is little hesitation about the “biggest challenges” over the last four years being “the problems we’ve had with recruiting people.”
“We go to some expense of time and money to recruit people,” said the governor, explaining how St Helena’s isolation reduces the size of the selection pool when hiring new TC (Technical Co-operation) officers from the UK. The lengthy sea access and enforced separation from family, especially where small children, elderly relatives or sickness is concerned, deters many from a posting here.
“We’re fishing in a small pond you know.”
“Unfortunately some people who we recruit just don’t work out, for a whole range of reasons. It’s not what they expected or maybe they came for the wrong reasons; maybe they weren’t really as prepared or skilled as they needed to be for the job they were coming to do.”
“That’s been a huge frustration.”
One factor in recruitment problems are people who think they can escape problems back home by accepting a post on St Helena; that those problems will “fade away in this new environment.” The governor has observed that as a solution, this rarely happens. “Instead the problems they were running away from, they get bigger.”
But a lot more effort now goes into attracting “the right people with the right skills and expertise,” and also “mindset” to come to St Helena.
Too Many Expat Officers on St Helena
Directly linked to recruitment problems and perhaps the most frustrating issue for Saints at the moment is the number of expat TC Officers contracted in to St Helena who it is felt are below the calibre we might expect. Some remain in post while others leave early, using the well worn explanation of “personal reasons” to deflect questions. I asked Mr Capes how legitimate did he feel these concerns over perceived incompetence with TC workers are.
“I know there is tension. I think there always has been tension between expat officers in government and some local people. You can understand why because expat officers come and go – somebody put it to me that, here they come, they’ve got long job titles and allowances and nice salaries.
“Well, that may be so but at a time when we are, trying to move the island forward on so many fronts, doing new things, trying to get ready for the opportunities we expect air access to bring then there has been an increase in the number of [expat officers].”
Mr Capes pointed to social services as an example where an increase in staff has been necessary in response to issues raised by the Wass Report. He reiterated that bringing TC workers to St Helena is expensive and not done lightly, but he also suggested the numbers have peaked and should decline moving forward.
The governor did, however, seem to understand the frustrations.
“I share the sentiment of some Saints. I know a lot of Saints have seen experts come and go – the eight or 17 day experts as they’re known locally. Having been here four and a half years [myself] it can be irksome when somebody arrives on the island and after eight days think they know the answers to everything and can solve all our problems.
“St Helena is a far more complex society than people think. On the face of it, it looks like a small extension of the UK in some ways, a very friendly, quiet little village. Everybody’s happy and waves [to each other] and isn’t life wonderful. Well of course like anywhere else in the world there are many complex issues here; sensitivities that need to be understood; a need to recognise that St Helena has its very own definite and distinct identity. A Saint looks at things and values things [differently]. Things that are important to Saints may not be so important to somebody from the UK and vice versa. Priorities are different and unless you can understand and accept the reality of that, then you can go wrong very quickly by treading on sensitivities and coming to the wrong conclusion on issues.”
St Helena’s Councillors – LegCo and ExCo
I had to ask the governor about his relationship with the island’s 12 elected members; Legislative Council. In 2013 Mr Capes dissolved LegCo a few months earlier than expected, triggering a general election – a move that upset most of the outgoing councillors. He also once said “political power on St Helena rested solely on the shoulders of the island’s councillors.” So was this really the case?
Mr Capes pointed to the 2009 constitution where the decision making process sees Executive Council, (five LegCo members who chair committees for the main government departments) put forward recommendations to the governor.
“The governor must accept [ExCo recommendations] unless he sees something which is counter to good governance or hasn’t been properly considered. That’s the starting point.”
Mr Capes explained as chairman of ExCo it’s his job to challenge, question and test the council, examining whether decisions meet constitutional obligations and the principles of good governance.
“I can say categorically that in four and half years of chairing ExCo there’s not one single decision that I have rejected. I’ve accepted every decision of council.”
Looking back to the general election of 2013 the governor outlined steps he took to “enhance the image of councillors,” to help make the leadership of council stronger.
“Immediately after the general election in 2013 I arranged for a parliamentary team to come out from the UK to conduct a two week induction seminar with our newly elected council. That went very well. It [covered] the obligations on councillors and the principles of good governance and Nolan Principles. I was determined to give the new council the best possible start.”
The governor also handed the fortnightly ExCo report responsibility to councillors.
Another initiative was holding ‘Away Days’ at Plantation, creating a closed forum for “completely frank and open discussion; dialogue.”
These “closed door” sessions have gone well. “We have plenty of tea and biscuits to keep us going throughout the morning,” smiled the governor, “but we have a good frank exchange.”
Education on St Helena
Considering St Helena’s ambitions for economic self-sufficiency through tourism, is the current education system and its delivery adequate?
A very “deep question” responded the governor, acknowledging that education is also impacted by the same recruitment difficulties we discussed earlier, but overall progress is “going in the right direction.
“Two years ago we did have the best GCSE results ever.”
Mr Capes said government is putting as much resources into education as possible and noted “some brilliant results from students who’ve gone to the UK for tertiary education; obtaining excellent degrees. So I think there’s reason to be optimistic.”
But he also made the point that it is important as a community we all need to encourage children to study.
“Some people say education depends two thirds on the home environment and a third on what happens in school. There is no hard and fast rule but I think what it means really is that people need to raise their ambitions and expectations in line with opportunities we see coming down the pipeline with air access.”
Health on St Helena
As in any other country, health provision provokes strong debate on St Helena. In 2013 staff at the hospital confirmed that of the island’s deaths, more than 60% were related to diabetes. I asked Governor Capes about his working relationship with the health authorities and what does the island’s report card on health say today.
“I think like education, [health] is going in the right direction. The hospital now, at last, is under refurbishment, which will expand and extend the range of services on offer and I’m sure will save lives with earlier diagnosis of illnesses. Through things like the MRI scanner [for example].”
Mr Capes agreed the statistics on diabetes was “horrendous.” He told me it was also a terrible problem in the UK and for context highlighted a wide range of problems they [UK] faced in delivering health care, reported almost daily in the papers.
Despite the “challenge” we face on “such a remote island; limited resources,” the governor felt St Helena’s health service is on the right track.
He reminded me that a few years ago, “we put a tax on sugary drinks; quite a bold step that some other places around the world are looking at doing now.”
The new air service will potentially improve health services further; experts and consultants coming in and medi-vacs getting out should all be able to happen more quickly.
“I think there are a lot of positives in terms of the future direction of health care. We’ll never have enough to please everyone, to satisfy every emergency, everything that happens, but we’re doing our best to get it right.”
Hotel Failure – Easier To Build An Airport
When the decision to build the airport was made in 2005 it was also acknowledged that the building of a hotel was key to ensuring the overall success of the project. Despite a series of positive visits from experts in the international hospitality sector, St Helena is still without the new hotel that was discussed. In fact it has taken just four years to achieve the more difficult task of building an airport.
With this in mind, has the island’s economic development been poorly managed?
“No I don’t think it is. I think what that reflects is the constraints on us by our limited access to capital to invest in infrastructure such as accommodation. DIFD made it really clear that they’re not in the business of investing in hotels. So, if it’s not going to be money from DFID, the UK government, then where’s it going to come from?
“It has to come from SHG or our very limited private sector here. Or from inward investment.
“We are going ahead with plans to develop 1,2,3 Main Street, into a 30 room hotel. That’s taken longer than we would have liked, because again, constraints on our budget.”
I had asked the question because international hotel companies, The Mantis Collection and Protea Hotels had made what appeared to be very promising visits to St Helena over three years ago. Constraints on funding would have been known at the time, so in the three years that have followed it seems reasonable that islanders might have expected more. Thus the suggestion this may have been a management problem.
“I’m certainly not dodging the bullet there,” replied the governor, explaining the problem was more about establishing, “as a government what the possible options were.”
In summary, he explained that although Mantis and others could see the potential in St Helena, “people wanted to see the airport open before they were going to put hard cash in.”
In the meantime a new hotel is still needed, “so it’s down to SHG.” Enabling funding meant jumping through “a whole series of hoops both with DFID and elsewhere” to “put at stake a few million pounds of St Helena’s tax payer’s money.”
The decision was been taken to convert existing government buildings in Jamestown, 1, 2 and 3 Main Street, into a hotel, however, in March 2016, work is still to commence. The official opening of the airport is still scheduled for 21 May 2016.
The Dark Days: Allegations, Inquiry and Hurt
If the airport project stands out as one of the more memorable highlights of Governor Capes’ time in office, then the bombshell dropped by the British online newspaper edition of the Daily Mail, in July 2014 was surely the darkest episode. Shocking allegations against St Helena were splashed across the internet, thrusting the island into an unwelcome global spotlight.
Saints and friends of St Helena both on island and around the world were left reeling as lurid headlines accused St Helena of a “cultural acceptance” of child abuse.
“That really was a difficult period,” recalls Mr Capes. “The Wass Inquiry was sparked by so called whistle blowers, making allegations that there was corruption in the police, corruption in the government, cover-ups, widespread child abuse, corruption in FCO in London and DfID as well.”
The Wass Inquiry
The British government reacted swiftly, commissioning an independent Inquiry led by barrister, Sasha Wass QC. The subsequent report, published in December 2015, exonerated the island fully.
“St Helena and its people have been grossly and unfairly tarnished by the allegations,” the report stated.
Those allegations were made by two social workers, Claire Gannon and Martin Warsama, both hired and brought to St Helena by SHG. The Wass Report “was left in no doubt that each of them [Claire Gannon and Martin Warsama] was professionally incompetent and unable to fulfil the terms of their employment.”
Mr Capes recognised the Wass Inquiry was a “necessary” response and that although St Helena has had incidents of child abuse, “as everywhere else,” the level of allegations were “ridiculous.”
“We weren’t surprised [by the Wass Report findings] that there was no corruption, no cover up, any widespread abuse; we knew there wasn’t.
“But [at the time] it was very hard on some really excellent people we have working here and are still working here in that field. We were put in a position where we couldn’t respond [to the Gannon and Warsama allegations] because there was going to be an inquiry.
“It’s a great sadness of modern times… it’s disturbing that a couple of individuals can make such wild allegations and cause so much damage, in this case for a whole community.”
Mr Capes lamented the “vast expense” in terms of the time and energy it took to deal with the allegations. ”It took so much time of officials here and in London, and of course the costs of the inquiry itself, all money and time that could have been spent on other things.”
Wass Report: One Thing Was “Deeply Offensive”
The Wass Report itself was a substantial document, more than 300 pages. While Governor Capes welcomed the overall findings, I was curious to know whether he wanted to comment on any other content from the report. He did.
“There were other things in the report which went beyond the immediate allegations of cover up and so on, for example there was criticism about the absence of a transport link between Ascension and St Helena.”
The Governor outlined how he had informed the Inquiry that to establish transport links to replace the RMS St Helena would be difficult but that it was “work in progress”. A subsidised service was having to be replaced with a fully commercialised one. As originally intended both air and sea freight links are now agreed and in place ahead of the July 2016 deadline.
There was another aspect of the Wass Report the Governor wanted to address.
“Inquiry reports can say whatever they want, because they are, quite rightly, independent. But of course there are always people who will know whether what is said is right or wrong and knowing what I and others know I am not concerned about anything said about me, apart from one thing. The one thing I found personally upsetting is the frankly deeply offensive suggestion that having visited Barnview [residential care home] a couple of weeks after I arrived in 2011, armed with Christmas cakes, doing the traditional Christmas round of care homes and so on, that I somehow failed to spot neglect of an individual.
“But that I have to say is completely wrong because, when I went to Barnview in December 2011, what I found was a well run operation, a happy place with expert nursing provided by and led by Shirley Anderson, a very distinguished and much loved Saint nurse and my recollection was exactly as I had described it. I congratulated Shirley on the work she and her team were doing at Barnview and elsewhere. It was not easy work but they were doing it really well with the resources they had. I was impressed with the way the care was given and I emailed Shirley afterwards to say so and I provided [funding for] some equipment to help the work of her and the team to care for the patients.”
“But there we are, right or wrong, the buck stops with the governor as head of government!”
Although it was the first time I had heard the Governor respond to this criticism of him in the Wass Report, I have heard many other people on St Helena express quiet opinions of disapproval at this aspect of the report.
As it turns out I myself have firsthand and very personal knowledge of Barnview from December 2011 which gives me great empathy with the governor’s views.
Back in December 2011, my mum was a resident at Barnview care home. The “happy” atmosphere and “well run” facility Mr Capes described from that Christmas visit was one my family knew well and, that my dad especially, witnessed every day. During almost four years of visiting the care home we really appreciated the work facing nurses each shift was far from easy. However, we were constantly humbled by their commitment and concern for the patients and the happy, ‘home’ they created at Barnview.
What Would You Do Differently?
After more than four years in the hot seat, if Governor Capes could start again, what would he do differently?
“Without wishing to sound conceited or anything, I don’t think I’d change anything. I’ll tell you why – because everything that I’ve done since day one, I’ve done for what I’ve believed to be the right reasons based on the best information and advice I had at the time.
“Everything I’ve done has been done with the best interest of St Helena in mind, and that is my only objective in being here, I’ve got no other interest, no other gain [than] to do the best for St Helena.”
I pushed the governor that with the benefit of hindsight maybe he could think of something. After thinking it over for moment he told me what he would do is to recognise more the work of his wife, Tamara. With the 24/7 demands on the role of governor, “she has had to live with that and has done a huge amount to support me in my job and my objectives. I’m guilty of not acknowledging her enough in all that I’ve done over the last four and a half years. It would have been much more difficult without her.”
What Will You Miss Most About St Helena?
This question was always coming, but still it makes the governor pause to collect his thoughts before answering with a reflective sigh.
“Some really good friends. Close friends that have been a great support through my four and half years – friends to confide in. And friends that I think when we leave here will be friends for life.
“I’ll miss very much the brilliant team here at Plantation House and the support staff in my office. Linda [Glanville] (Governor’s PA) and Sandra [Sim] who’ve been brilliant and the team who have just been superb, they’ve made such a difference. Without them it would be very hard to do my job and they’ve made it so much easier.”
The governor realised he was in danger of reeling off a long list, so decided to leave it there, but there was one more mention which I had expected. “I know I will miss the community at St Paul’s Cathedral where I’ve worshipped and enjoyed the fellowship there every Sunday; that’s been a great support to me as well. I shall miss them very much.”
Advice For Governor Lisa Phillips
St Helena’s next governor has been announced as Lisa Phillips, the island’s first female governor. She will arrive in April, but a handover between the two in London will take place before then. What advice would Governor Capes impart to help ensure a successful posting for Governor Phillips?
“The magic wand!” laughs Mr Capes at my question. “I would say to her, take time to listen – listen carefully to young people, old people, ordinary working people with families trying to make a living. Listen to them carefully, to what they have to say. Don’t listen to the professional moaners! Don’t listen to those who sit in dark corners, whinging and criticising everything that happens on St Helena, that’s a waste of time and there’s only a handful of them, so just ignore them and listen to ordinary people; people who’ve got some get-up-and-go and are doing things, trying to make a living for themselves and their family. They’re the people to listen to, not the whingers!
“I will tell her that there are those here who delight in criticising people simply, it seems to me, to fill a void in their own barren lives; their sad lives, that it gives them a kick to criticise other decent people. That’s a feature here that’s gone on for too long and that should stop, I hope. But don’t listen to them.”
This response poked my curiosity. The criticism the governor spoke about, was it something that had affected him?
“No it hasn’t,” he replied, then immediately reconsidered. “No, that’s not true; what has affected me is to see the impact that has on other people who’ve suffered from that sort of personal attacks in the media. And so often it’s personal attacks that come from a cowardly person who hides behind a pseudonym, who hasn’t got the courage, hasn’t got the stomach, the spine to put their name to the criticisms they’re making of ordinary, decent people. So when I see people hurt by that, that always has an impact, you know, when you have to try and support those people. But you know, it’s a part of life. But it’s something I hope will fade away in time.”
Interestingly Lisa Phillips tweeted her own message the day the governor left St Helena:
Many, many thanks to Mark Capes, departing Governor St Helena today for great job. Your legacy – the airport – will thrive. #hardacttofollow
Final Message To The People of St Helena?
“I would say, stay proud of your island and keep to the values that make it so special. Make sure you hold on to those special things. And going back to what I said earlier, speak up and be heard above those that make – the few – that make so much noise, don’t be afraid to speak up and be heard. That’s really important.”
Governor and Mrs Capes departed St Helena for the last time on 18 March, 2016, sailing away on the RMS St Helena to Cape Town.
I’ve had many opportunities to observe Mr Capes during his four and half years here, through my reporting for SAMS but also through photography in general. I always got a sense he was genuinely interested in St Helena and the community and in every situation seemed to have a knack for putting people at ease around him.
Different people on island will have their own opinions about his time here, but for me, I thought Mark Capes was a good governor for St Helena.