Warning lights are flashing at the South African National Accreditation System (Sanas) — a key state agency central to South Africa’s trade relations with the rest of the world — after the emergence of claims that its board is interfering in its operations.
Executives there have asked Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel to remove board members — including its chairperson, Lulama Mayedwa — for allegedly manipulating the process to select a new chief executive, nearly eight months ago.
Sanas, together with the South African Bureau of Standards and other agencies, is responsible for ensuring that products manufactured locally meet international norms and standards, and is central to ensuring that imports meet consumer safety and quality standards.
Patel has declined to appoint the board’s choice of chief executive — former Weather SA chief executive Linda Makuleni — but has yet to address the allegations made by Sanas acting chief executive Mpho Phaloane and chief financial officer Ismail Abdoola in a number of memorandums sent to him since last November.
These include the claim that Mayedwa, who was appointed by then minister Rob Davies in 2018, is not qualified to occupy the post because he was fired by the department of public works for dishonesty more than a decade ago.
They have also asked Patel to appoint an investigation into alleged financial misconduct over their appointment of a firm of attorneys to conduct work that fell outside the ambit of the board’s powers.
Despite its lack of a public profile, Sanas is central to South Africa’s export industry: it is responsible for certifying that products ranging from cars to fruit are produced to international standards.
It is also responsible for accrediting laboratories in the food and medical industries to international standards and is central to removing trade barriers for South Africa companies supplying foreign markets by certifying the adherence to international standards.
In a memorandum to Patel last November, Phaloane said he was duty bound to bring to Patel’s attention Mayedwa’s dismissal from the department of public works, where he was a regional manager at the Pretoria office.
According to the memorandum, Mayedwa had lost an appeal against the dismissal, which was effected after he allegedly forced department staff to carry out repairs to his state home illegally in 2007.
He said the Sanas board charter made it clear than any person who had been removed from an “office of trust” because of misconduct involving dishonesty could not serve as a director. The Companies Act also stipulated that any person dismissed for dishonesty could not serve as a director.
Patel, he said, should review the appointment of the board, which he claimed had downgraded the skills and experience levels needed for a chief executive during the process of replacing Ron Josias, who had served in the post for two decades.
In a memorandum to Patel in February, Abdoola asked him to appoint an investigation into board members over their alleged financial misconduct, saying that treasury regulations compelled the minister to do so within 30 days.
Sidwell Medupe, spokesperson for the trade and industry department, said the board had been appointed by Patel’s predecessor, Rob Davies, and that its members had been chosen to achieve a mix of scientific, human resources, finance and other skills. They had undergone a shortlisting process, and had all been screened.
Medupe said there had been “no negative results for the board member concerned” during the screening and vetting process.He confirmed that allegations about governance were brought to the attention of the department.”Such matters are taken very seriously by the department and are being considered carefully, a process that was interrupted by the refocus of work during the past three months,” he said.
Patel had appointed two senior department officials to the board as an interim measure and in a bid to bring stability to the organisation.A new chief executive would be appointed after the concerns regarding governance had been addressed to ensure that due process was followed.
Medupe said Patel took the entities under the department seriously and would respond in more detail after giving the issues at Sanas more consideration.
Meanwhile, the chairperson, Mayedwa, told the M&G he was not aware of the memorandums about him or the board, or allegations of misconduct.
“I am hearing this for the first time. If indeed letters were sent to the ministry as long ago as November, I would have expected that the ministry would have shared them with the board, or asked us to respond or meet with the accounting authority,” Mayedwa said.
Mayedwa said he and other board members had been shortlisted and appointed by the DTI, which had followed its own selection processes.
“If anybody outside of Sanas feels people who were employed do not have the necessary skills, that should be raised with the DTI. At the end of the day, it will be embarrassing to them and to the government if anything goes wrong because of having people who cannot play their oversight role by virtue of not having the necessary technical skills,” he said.
Mayedwa referred the allegations about him having been dismissed for dishonesty at public works to the department of trade and industry.
“I am not going to respond to that. The employer should be responding to that issue,” Mayedwa said.
Steve Sydney, chairperson of the National Laboratory Association (NLA), said that the uncertainty about the process of selecting a new Sanas chief executive could have a negative effect on the sector in the longer term.
“One person does not make an organisation, but the CEO is an important cog in the wheel. If this is treated lightly, as a minor issue that doesn’t matter, there will be serious repercussions further down the line. This is a highly technical post, which requires the right person with the right kinds of skills, not a political appointment,” Sydney said.
Among the industries that could be affected is automotive manufacturing, which was central to plans to build the post Covid-19 economy in South Africa, Sydney said.
The NLA believed the government should give the matter “proper attention” to ensure Sanas had the ability to maintain its own standards and its international accreditation.
A failure to do so would undermine the local laboratory industry and would mean that all testing and calibration would have to be carried out by foreign companies.
“We have 400 organisations who have testing or calibration laboratories, who — directly or indirectly — are potentially at risk if Sanas makes the wrong moves,” Sydney said.
*This article was updated once comment from the spokesperson of the trade and industry department was obtained