Purge threatens state agency

 

 

Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP), a state-owned animal vaccine manufacturer, faces allegations of capture after its board appointed a chief executive without him undergoing security vetting.

Baptiste Dungu had previously worked at OBP but had resigned in 2008 while being investigated for allegedly selling intellectual property and bacteria strains to private companies around the world.

Dungu’s appointment in March last year also did not follow the correct employment procedures; it did not have the approval of the Cabinet and company’s shareholder representative, the minister of agriculture.

The OBP produces bacterial, viral and blood vaccines for animals. These are sold to local and international markets. The company also holds strains of bacteria and viruses, some of which date back to the early 1920s.

Selling its vaccines brings in R160-million a year. But a plan to triple that income is being threatened by an alleged purge of senior staff members and the entire supply management team.

One of the OBP directors, Cynthia Nkuna, who was on the four-member panel that interviewed him, did not declare that she held directorships with him in two companies. A Companies and Intellectual Property Commission search shows that Nkuna and Dungu were appointed as directors of Saraf-Kgomo and Bacdunns on the same day in 2012, suggesting that they founded the companies together.

Nkuna could not be reached for comment this week. Text messages sent to her phone were not acknowledged.

As one of the country’s national key points, people need security clearance to work at the OBP.

Dungu’s last stint at the state-owned company came to an end when he resigned while under investigation for allegedly selling trade secrets and bacteria strains.

Althoughthe Mail &Guardian was able to establish this from sources with direct knowledge of the investigation and charges against Dungu, he and the OBP dismissed the allegations.

The company’s spokesperson, Lindiwe Mabena, said Dungu had left the OBP to pursue greener pastures. Dungu could not be reached on a cell number belonging to him.

Mabena said: “Dr Dungu was employed by OBP from 2002 to 2008 when he resigned to assume a position with GALVmed—Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicine. He was offered an executive position by an international company (positive career move).”

He added that the board had appointed a recruitment company, Kelly, in 2018 to find a new chief executive and Dungu had been one of three candidates who were interviewed. “The shortlisted candidates were subjected to vetting and clearance … The name was submitted to the former minister of agriculture, who signed and approved the appointment on 17th of December in 2018.”

She added: “The board is satisfied with the process followed to recruit the CEO [chief executive officer] for OBP.”

Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said the department could not confirm whether Dungu’s appointment had received ministerial and Cabinet blessing. This is because the paperwork cannot be found as the previous minister, Senzeni Zokwana, and his team took all the documents in the minister’s office. This was disputed by a former senior staff member in Zokwana’s office, who said a two-day handover workshop was held when the former minister left.

“This reasoning also does not make sense because, although ministers sign appointment letters, the accounting officer is always the director general and he oversees the vetting, compiles Cabinet memos, and writes the appointment letters the minister signs. That letter should be there in the department’s records,” the former senior staff member added.

Insiders at the OBP claim that, since his arrival, Dungu has purged the company of the chief financial officer, Matsobane Gololo, the supply chain management team, the company secretary, Zodwa Mobeng, the head of the legal department, Ziphozami Linda, and the head of human resources, Mpume Ramutle.

Gololo and Ramute resigned in November, while Linda resigned in October. The OBP’s spokesperson Mabena was quoted in news reports saying all three senior employees resigned while on special leave or precautionary suspension pursuant to a forensic investigation instigated by the board.

The insiders said these staff changes were threatening a five-year upgrade of the OBP’s manufacturing facilities, which will cost nearly R1-billion. This upgrade would allow the state-owned entity to produce vaccines to the “good manufacturing practice” standard, potentially tripling its current R160-million revenue.

According to parliamentary committee meeting minutes from 2019, to date treasury has allocated the companyR492-million towards the upgrade. Without the upgrade, the OBP cannot sell to international markets and instead has to send its strains to other companies for beneficiation, cutting its chance of profiting from its work and intellectual property.

Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

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