/ 20 August 2009

Biodiversity institute clouded by race row

A race row has erupted at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), with allegations of mismanagement, racism and intimidation.
Several workers at Sanbi, South Africa’s biodiversity watchdog, claim the organisation is racked with fear. Others claim the trouble revolves around a few individuals who are constantly sowing discord.

Last week about 20 black workers staged a picket at Sanbi’s Pretoria offices at the Pretoria Botanical Gardens, the scene of most of the strife, to protest against lack of transformation.

Sanbi chief executive Tanya Abrahamse set up a fact-finding team this week to investigate the disputes.

The latest conflict involves management and a lower-level staffer at the Pretoria branch of the organisation. The assistant director at the biodiversity planning unit, Lethiwe Zondo, claims she was victimised after she lodged a complaint against her supervisor, Mathieu Rouget, and the chief director of biodiversity planning and mainstreaming, Kristal Maze.

Zondo’s allegations include racism, abuse of authority and misuse of donor funds. She told the Mail & Guardian that she and at least three other Sanbi employees had been downgraded from a higher pay scale after they began working there.

A central grievance was that she was asked to sign off on payments to consultants without adequate proof that services had been provided. One of the consultants was allegedly Phillip Desmet, Maze’s husband.

In the subsequent hearing Yolisa Koyo, a deputy director general at Sanbi, recommended the suspension of Maze and Rouget, pending a full forensic audit into supply-chain management irregularities and a human resources audit.

Koyo said ”most of the witnesses appeared to be very reluctant to respond to the questions raised by the panel” and required reassurance that the issues discussed would not be raised outside the hearing.

She found that the Public Finance Management Act had been contravened and donor funds abused and remarked on ”racially skewed employment patterns”.

But when an investigation by Sanbi’s internal auditors found that the charges against Rouget and Maze were baseless, Abrahamse decided not to suspend them.

During a grievance hearing Zondo complained that level10 employment in her division was reserved for Africans, level11 for coloureds and level12 for whites. But the audit report found no evidence of racially determined employment patterns. Abrahamse informed Zondo that she considered the matter closed.

Zondo believed that an independent auditor should have conducted the audit. When she and other staffers toyi-toyied at Sanbi’s offices last week, Abrahamse wrote to staff informing them that illegal demonstrations would not be tolerated. Rouget has since resigned to take up an academic post at the University of Pretoria.

Other sources at Sanbi complained that Maze and Rouget were hung out to dry. They describe Zondo as a ”disturbed individual who is causing Sanbi a lot of grief”.

Abrahamse told the M&G that — as with many institutions in the sector, Sanbi has a legacy from the past.

”However, all our systems, processes — attitudes, behaviour and training aim to overcome this,” she said.