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State agency lies about exec ‘purge’

The board of the Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP), the state’s animal vaccine manufacturer, has been caught in a lie after claiming that officials who left its employ were running from accountability. 

It now turns out that the organisation paid the employees more than R2-million to walk away. 

In January, when allegations of a purge in the OBP were first published in the Mail & Guardian, the company went on a PR drive that included bringing in an external public relations consultant, buying advertising space in the M&G, and hitting the television and radio interview circuit. 

The message, which was delivered by board chairperson Tshililo Ramabulana, centred on a denial of the M&G’s story that new chief executive, Baptiste Dungu, had left the company under a cloud, was hired improperly and had driven out three executives since his return. 

Secrets: Baptiste Dungu hid from the board the fact that three executives didn’t resign.

“When Baty [Dungu] came back, there are a number of executives who left the OBP. And they left because, if you look at OBP’s last annual report, there were a number of issues that the AG [auditor general] raised. When we were dealing with those issues, a number of executives left, and we think those allegations came from that,” Ramabulana told Newsroom Africa’s presenter, Cathy Mohlahlana, during a live primetime interview on January 27.

In an advert placed in the M&G on January 24, the organisation described the allegations as unsubstantiated, malicious and intended to distract it from its commitment to turn the OBP around.

But not only had Dungu been previously charged with operating a competing business and making use of OBP’s trade secrets, he had also hidden from his board that three executives who left the company were paid to go. 

The charge sheet for Dungu’s disciplinary hearing prove that he was charged in April 2006 for, among other matters, private use of business trade secrets, as well as conflict of interest. This week the OBP said it would respond in a media statement after this article is published. 

Internal OBP documents, including board sub-committee minutes, show that in 2019 the company’s former secretary Zodwa Mobeng, was paid R1.39-million to leave, while the former chief financial officer, Matsobane Gololo, and former corporate services executive, Mpho Rammutle, were paid more than R600 000 and R300 000 respectively. 

These amounts equate to a year’s salary for Mobeng, three months for Rammutle and six months for Gololo. 

The M&G has also established that a fourth executive, chief operations officer Simphiwe Ntombela, also signed a mutual separation agreement with the OBP that saw him leave with R612 478, the equivalent of six months’ salary. 

Although it is not clear whether Ntombela’s agreement was done with the board’s blessings, the M&G has seen board meeting documents that show the board was under the illusion that the three ran from being held accountable. 

It was only when the board members asked the executive for an update on the recovery of fruitless expenditure from officials who resigned that the board’s remuneration, human resources and ethics sub-committee was informed that the three had been paid to leave. 

“One of the board members remarked that they were under the impression that there were answerable cases against the three and that fruitless expenditure blamed on them could be replaced. They did not know that they were paid to go, and there were no cases against them,” said an OBP insider with direct knowledge of the meeting.

Mobeng was the board’s initial pick for the position of chief executive, but her appointment in 2018 was scuppered by Ramabulana after the board had resolved to forward her name to Senzeni Zokwana, the agriculture minister at the time, for approval. 

At the time Ramabulana questioned why Dungu — who had been disqualified because he would not pass a security clearance to work at the OBP, a national keypoint — had been disqualified. 

Dungu, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, did not qualify for requirements of chapter five of the Minimum Information Security Standard, which states that to qualify for a top security clearance an immigrant must have been a resident in South Africa for 20 years, with 15 of those years spent as a citizen. 

Chapter five also stipulates that if a person has lived or worked abroad for long periods, they need to have been in the country for a minimum of five years provided that they had not given up citizenship or accepted dual citizenship. Dungu resided in London at the time of his application to the OBP in 2018, and had been out of the country since 2008. 

The M&G had previously reported that when Dungu was hired it was not declared that he was a

co-director of two companies with one of the OBP’s directors, Charlotte Nkuna. Furthermore, documents showing his appointment was approved by the department of agriculture, the OBP’s government shareholder representative, could not be found. 

This week the M&G can report that Dungu had also:

  • Increased the salaries of his office manager, from R730 506 a year to R1.2-million (her second increase since joining the OBP last June), as well as that of his personal assistant, from R363 784 to R562 198; 
  • Signed off on his own R18 000 a month car allowance, a perk he had been refused by Gololo and Rammutle when he was negotiating his package in December 2018; and 
  • Was responsible for causing the OBP to pay more than R100 000 to Kevin Govindsamy for one day’s work at OBP because he instructed that Govindsamy be hired without probity checks being completed. Govindsamy did not disclose that he had been fired from his previous job at Amatola Water in the Eastern Cape for misconduct. His past was apparently revealed by an executive who googled his name after he was introduced on his first day. 

Documents seen by the M&G show that Dungu, whose appointment letter from Ramabulana is dated December 24 2018, intimated that he had discussed his package with Ramabulana before the OBP’s executive had informed him of his appointment. 

In email discussions demanding a car allowance, Dungu says Rammutle’s reasoning that OBP’s policy did not allow a car allowance in his package is not what he discussed with the chairperson, and Ramabulana’s attempt to escalate the matter to acting chief executive Gololo also draws a nil. 

In February the M&G submitted a request to the OBP and the departments of state security and agriculture under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) for documents related to Dungu’s security clearance. 

The agriculture department referred the query to the OBP, and the state security department said it could not release information without Dungu’s permission. 

The OBP has never acknowledged the Paia request and attempts during the past few months to confirm whether they had received it have not borne any result because the relevant people have not been in the office. 

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Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

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