CSIR chief claims 'state capture'

Out in the open: Sibusiso Sibisi claims a failed attempt to sway a tender is behind a widespread investigation by the department of science and technology. (Jeremy Glyn/Financial Mail/ Gallo)

Out in the open: Sibusiso Sibisi claims a failed attempt to sway a tender is behind a widespread investigation by the department of science and technology. (Jeremy Glyn/Financial Mail/ Gallo)

The chief executive of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Sibusiso Sibisi, has publicly accused the director general of the department of science and technology, Phil Mjwara, of trying to interfere in the awarding of a tender.

After Sibisi refused to overrule the CSIR’s decision, the department apparently launched a farcical investigation of his leadership, he claims in a letter circulated to his staff last week.

In it, he said Mjwara and the department were meant to be the first line of defence against any undue influence being brought bear on a tender procedure, so “it is thus a profound irony that he [Mjwara] should find himself acting as a dutiful messenger to convey thinly veiled attempts to subvert our internal procurement process”.

In the letter, dated June 22, Sibisi explains that the CSIR – an organisation constituted by an Act of Parliament – is now the subject of an investigation by its shareholder, the department of science and technology, based on the allegations of a former employee, who was fired. But he has been refused to know the specific details of the claims.

The Mail & Guardian has a copy of Sibisi’s letter.

This “curious” investigation, he wrote, could be connected to the tender. Mjwara allegedly asked him to use his influence to decide the outcome of it, but Sibisi refused to.

Sibisi said Mjwara approached him last year about a tender that had been put out by the CSIR’s centre for high performance computing in Cape Town for the provision of high-end computing equipment. “He [Mjwara] was at pains to point out that he was merely conveying a concern from named sources that it appeared that the CSIR was not going to award the tender to a named provider,” Sibisi wrote.

“To the question of the extent to which I hold sway in the procurement process, my rejoinder was categorical: ‘Can’t sway. Won’t sway’.”

The CSIR responded in writing to questions, saying: “The DG [director general] mentioned the name Huawei.” The Chinese privately-owned company, despite being the provider of computing technology for five out of the nine tender bids, was not part of the winning contract.

Instead, it was awarded to Eclipse Holdings, with Dell as the technology provider. The contract value, according to treasury’s eTender publication portal, is R116-million.

Neither the department nor Mjwara would respond to questions. The department claimed it was because there is an investigation pending. This refers to alleged claims of maladministration and corruption at various levels in the CSIR.

Huawei South Africa’s media affairs manager, Portia Mvubu, said it was not aware of the allegation.

“Huawei abides by ethical business practices, conforms to applicable international conventions as well as laws and regulations of local countries where it operates, and operates with integrity – the same applying to the tender conditions as stipulated in each tender to which we respond to,” Mvubu said. “We participate in fair competition and have gained acknowledgment from our customers and market.”

  In the letter, Sibisi compared the past few months to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, in which the protagonist is arrested and tried for a crime that is never revealed to him.

His own trial, he suggested, began with his refusal to interfere in the awarding of the tender. Then, on February  4 this year, Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor addressed a letter to the chairperson of the CSIR board to say she had received information from an employee “relating to alleged maladministration and corruption at various levels within the CSIR”.

The minister said she would investigate the allegations to determine whether anything should be done by the board or her, and she would let the board know about the progress of the investigation.

On April 13, the minister again wrote to the board, saying she had appointed consultants to investigate the allegations.

She revealed the name of the person who made the allegations, but would not disclose exactly what they were, because of the Protected Disclosures Act. This protects whistle-blowers from any retaliation that might affect their job or future work prospects.

  The M&G had not been able to make contact with the former employee at the time of going to print.

Sibisi said, given the potential negative effect on the CSIR and the refusal by parties to reveal the details of the alleged misconduct, “we engaged the services of a lawyer [which] caused untold consternation”.

Yet again, Sibisi said, it was Mjwara who prevailed upon him to withdraw the services of the lawyer, which Sibisi refused to do.

  The consultants appointed by the minister, Open Water Advanced Technical Solutions, referred the M&G’s questions to the department.

According to Sibisi’s letter, the lawyer managed to illicit some written indication of the allegations, which include:

  • The termination of an investigation into the removal of equipment from the National Laser Centre;
  • Nepotism regarding the appointment of a family friend of the chief financial officer;
  • The drafting of the organisation’s employment equity report;
  • The dismissal of an employee in a so-called e-toll matter;
  • Backdated contracting of white male retirees;
  • Allegations of a contravention of research ethics by a former CSIR employee; and
  • Allegations of racial discrimination.

  The CSIR’s lawyer responded on the basis of the information (See “Department acts on ex-employee’s claims”, below) – only to incur Pandor’s wrath, with her describing the responses as cryptic, Sibisi wrote.

The employee, who had complained to the minister, had been suspended in December last year and dismissed in early April – before the minister had appointed the consultants, Sibisi claimed. She had been found guilty by an independent panel of all nine charges laid against her. For one, according to his letter, she was found guilty of misrepresenting her CV to secure a job at the CSIR.

Because of this, the CSIR argues the allegations cannot be dealt with as protected disclosure.

Sibisi wrote: “The least that one might have expected is that, when the minister received allegations of ‘maladministration and corruption at various levels within the CSIR’ from an employee with a service of a few months who was suspended at the time and was subject to a disciplinary process, she might have paused to say to herself, ‘that sounds grotesquely out of character given the CSIR that I have known over the years’.

“She might have asked how plausible it is that we could have successfully pulled the wool over her eyes and those of the auditor general for so long, and she might have engaged the board and executive on the matter.”

Huawei is a leading global information communication technology solutions provider. According to a Financial Times report of 2014, the United States’s house of intelligence recommended that the US should block any merger and acquisition deals involving Huawei because it “cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence”.

The FT noted that the company has repeatedly dismissed claims about having links to the Chinese government as baseless and that evidence to support US claims has never materialised.

Sibisi will leave the CSIR at the end of September after 15 years when his third contract comes to an end.

Department acts off ex-employee’s claims

An investigation of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research by the department of science and technology has been prompted by information supplied by a former employee who is alleging maladministration and corruption.

A lawyer acting for the CSIR drafted a reply to allegations raised by consultants, Open Water Advanced Technical Solutions, contracted by the department.

In the response, the CSIR noted that, although more details were promised by the consultants, they never arrived. This is part of the CSIR’s response to some of the claims:

  #1 Alleged termination of an investigation of the removal of equipment from the National Laser Centre: The CSIR said it had no record of terminating such an investigation. Rather, an investigation was undertaken and a report issued in May last year by the CSIR’s internal audit services and the recommendations have been implemented.

  #2 Alleged nepotism in appointing a family friend of the chief financial officer: The CSIR said the CFO had, as part of an interview panel, made three appointments in the past two years, all of which were “confirmed not a family friend”. Regarding the appointment of one employee, the CFO declared in writing that their careers had briefly overlapped. The panel was unanimous in the appointment of this candidate.

  #3 The process used in drafting the CSIR’s employment equity report: It explained its eight-step process in ensuring the report met the requirements as stipulated by the department of labour.

  #4 Alleged backdated contracting of white male retirees from April 1 2015: The CSIR said more specific information was requested but not provided. But it noted that its conditions of service allowed for the appointment of staff beyond retirement age and are intended to allow the organisation to procure the services of experienced scientists who can pass on their knowledge to younger scientists. – Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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