Probe puts Mamphela Ramphele on back foot

Mamphela Ramphele denies getting money from a project in her village highlighted by a forensic probe into the agency. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Mamphela Ramphele denies getting money from a project in her village highlighted by a forensic probe into the agency. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Dr Mamphela Ramphele, the leader of Agang and formerly the chairperson of the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), has pre-emptively denied that her family received money from a TIA cattle-breeding project located in her family's village during her tenure.

The TIA, which received R482-million this financial year, was established by the department of science and technology in 2008 to bridge the innovation chasm in South Africa. In 2009, when it was officially launched, its budget was R720-million.

Seen as a way to increase the country's patent numbers, which are orders of magnitude lower than its Brics counterparts, the agency is meant to fund product ideas that would boost South Africa's economic competitiveness and encourage job creation.

But questions of governance at the TIA have been on the science agenda for months and, in some cases, years. The agency is under forensic investigation following heavy criticism in two official reports, one into the South African sciencescape and the other into the functioning of the TIA itself.
This follows allegations of a corporate governance breakdown and irregular procurement of ­services and investment processes. The agency's chief executive, Simphiwe Duma, is on special leave.

The majority of the agency's board, including Ramphele, was replaced earlier this year. Despite no formal allegations being levelled at Ramphele and the forensic investigation not yet completed, she called a press briefing on Wednesday.

The project involved artificially inseminating Nguni ­cattle, which are difficult to breed,  to stimulate rural development and the red-meat industry.

The total project was allocated R24-million, she said, with the pilot at the Terbrugge farm in Limpopo receiving about R4-million.

The farm is part of the Terbrugge Community Trust, of which Ramphele is the founding member.

"We donated a share of that land for that project. We stand to benefit not a penny. We did not want any perceived conflict of interest,"  Ramphele said. When asked whether the board had approved the use of her family land, she said only investments of R5-million or more were brought before the board.

But the connection between Ramphele and Terbrugge was not mentioned in any of the minutes of meetings by the executive committee or the investment committee on the project.

The Mail & Guardian has seen part of a fact-finding report, dated July 9 2013, which states: "With reference to the TIA executive committee minutes for the meeting held on December 10 2012 … it is noted that the proposal received from the Terbrugge Community Trust was discussed in-depth. However, it is noted that the minutes are silent on Dr Ramphele's association with the Terbrugge Community as its founder." Ramphele did not sit on any of these committees.

Asked whether it was ethical that the Terbrugge Community Trust was chosen as a project beneficiary, even if its founder, Ramphele, did not receive money through the association, new chairperson Khungeka Njobe said: "The matter is being investigated. Any further comment on it is best made once the forensic report has been finalised and the board has considered the report."

Asked about the connection between Ramphele and the Terbrugge Trust, Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said: "It would not be appropriate for me to comment until I have seen the report of the forensic investigation.  On the face of it … it would raise serious ethical questions, but I will not judge this until I have received and read the report."

However, the M&G's Promotion of Access to Information Act application for the board, human resources and investment committees' minutes was rejected last month by the TIA, which said the information was commercially sensitive and queried the public-interest value in knowing what was being decided by the TIA board.

At the briefing on Wednesday, Ramphele lashed out at the new board, saying: "The public purse is asked to fund a forensic audit process that is vaguely framed … We have seen these disruptive investigations happen in other enterprises."

She said that, since May when the new board took over, it had "not been able to discharge the mandate of the TIA" and was instead "solely focused on the investigation of the TIA".

However, Njobe said that the board had a fiduciary duty to investigate the misuse of public funds. "Fulfilling this obligation cannot be considered to be distracting the TIA from 'doing its job'."

Responding to Ramphele's suggestion that the forensic investigation was distracting the TIA from its mandate and an unnecessary use of the public purse, Hanekom said: "She would have to explain to the public whether she is suggesting that allegations of corruption or abuse of public money should not be investigated. One would have thought that those who are potentially implicated would want their names cleared as soon as possible through a properly conducted investigation, and would therefore welcome the investigation."

A sticking point, Ramphele said, was also that the TIA would not guarantee that her legal costs would be covered for advice regarding her input into the forensic investigation.

Njobe responded: "The process is at an investigation level and it is our view that it is premature to have legal representation."

The external review into the TIA, completed earlier this year, spoke of a confused entity, whose executive was at loggerheads with its line department, with which it had a "toxic relationship". Many of the problems stemmed from the interpretation of the agency's mandate, with the department trying to lead it in one direction and the TIA executive trying to pull it in another.

However, the TIA was fraught with problems from the start, as it merged seven entities, namely the Innovation Fund, the Tshumisano Trust, the implementation unit of the advanced manufacturing technology strategy, and regional biotechnology innovation centres Cape Biotech, BioPAD, LIFElab and PlantBio. Many of these entities did not adhere to the Public Finances Management Act.

Attempts to contact Duma for comment were unsuccessful.


Timeline of events

2008: The TIA created through an Act of Parliament.

2009: Board appointed, with Mamphela Ramphele as chairperson.

2010: Simphiwe Duma appointed chief executive.

October 2012: Ministerial review of the science, technology and innovation recommends that the TIA be reviewed in terms of its “fit for purpose” existence.

May 2013: New board appointed; only one member of previous board remains. Khungeka Njobe, who was part of the external review panel, succeeds Ramphele as board chairperson.

July 11 2013: External review summary released. It speaks of confusion about mandate, jostling for influence within the organisation and a “toxic” relationship between the department of science and technology and the TIA.

July 12 2013: Science and technology director general Phil Mjwara writes to Ramphele informing her of the forensic investigation regarding “the alleged breakdown of corporate governance, and policy and procedural issues in respect of procurement of services, recruitment and appointment of staff, and investment processes.

July 17 2013: In a memo to staff, Njobe informs them that Duma has taken special leave and appoints an acting chief executive who, “given the nature of the allegations”, has to have projects above certain levels co-signed by the head of legal services.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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