/ 24 April 2023

Gauteng Gambling Board clean-up improved governance – acting CEO

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arabo Mbele, the acting chief executive of the Gauteng Gambling Board (GGB). Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Karabo Mbele, the acting chief executive of the Gauteng Gambling Board (GGB), has denied that governance at the agency has collapsed in the wake of MEC Tasneem Motara’s decision to dissolve its board.

Motara, who is Gauteng MEC for economic development, has said she was left with no choice but to dissolve the board after a spate of resignations left it improperly constituted. Motara took the decision to dissolve the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency board on 24 March.

The collapse of the two boards has raised questions about governance under Motara. The dissolution of the gambling board’s board means that Mbele is directly accountable to the MEC, who becomes the accounting authority in the absence of another controlling body.

But Mbele maintains that the MEC was rectifying existing governance issues at the gambling board, which has been without a permanent chief executive since the resignation of Steven Ngubeni. Ngubeni was placed under precautionary suspension in June 2021 and left the gambling board under a cloud of financial misconduct allegations.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Mbele and the gambling board’s acting company secretary, Thapelo Bodila, outlined a range of allegations against the agency’s former board. Prior to his appointment as acting company secretary, Bodila was the gambling board’s litigation officer.

Documents seen by the M&G show that some of these allegations were levelled against the board’s former chairperson, Anthea Platt, prior to the MEC’s decision to let her go.

“If anything,” Mbele said, “there should be better governance than there was before, because we are treading carefully, obviously wanting to correct ills of the past. By the way, we are not the first institution in government, in Gauteng or nationally, to run without a board.”

The allegations outlined by Mbele and Bodila also form part of the complaints by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) against the board. 

Nehawu laid a complaint with the public protector against the board last August, alleging maladministration, dishonesty and improper dealing with respect to public money. Bodila submitted the complaint in his capacity as a Nehawu shop steward.

The complaint related to the attendance of members of the gambling board’s senior executive team and six board members at last year’s Durban July event. According to the complaint, the gambling board footed the bill for the trip, which allegedly cost more than R600 000. 

“The Durban July horse race is not a bookmaker of the GGB by any definition and the GGB historically does not even see itself as having a regulatory responsibility to attend horse racing events within the Gauteng province itself,” the complaint reads. 

When the allegation was first brought to light, the gambling board’s acting chief executive at the time, Thiran Marimuthu, told City Press that the trip was budgeted for and that the travel costs for the partners of the GGB executives and board members were “borne by individuals in their personal capacity”.

“This is not the first time that the GGB has attended the Durban July event or similar events as part of its regulatory responsibilities. All other provincial gambling boards have also attended this or similar events,” Marimuthu reportedly told the publication.

Nehawu, through Bodila, also complained directly to Motara on 25 January. Marimuthu’s contract as acting chief executive had been terminated a week prior and Mbele took over on the 23rd. According to Mbele, Marimuthu had been in the acting position for more than 18 months, which was irregular.

The union’s complaint to Motara raised the Durban July matter again and accused the board of failing to deal with this and other allegations of misconduct. “It is worth noting that the failure of the GGB board to look into the complaints raised with them constitutes a dereliction of their oversight and fiduciary duties and renders them potentially guilty of financial misconduct as per the provisions of the PFMA [Public Finance Management Act].”

Nehawu also accused the board of irregularity with regard to its preparations to attend the Sun Met horse race in Cape Town later in January as well as failing to investigate allegations that bingo licences were being issued irregularly.

Motara put the allegations contained in the Nehawu complaint to Platt in a letter dated 29 January and instructed the board to investigate them. The MEC instructed that these investigations should be completed within three months.

On 7 February, Platt responded to the complaints against her in a letter to Motara and Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi.

Platt wrote that the issues raised by Nehawu had been addressed by the board, which was investigating them. Platt noted that the Durban July matter was already being investigated by the public protector.

“In this regard the board has ensured that the organisation responds and assists the public protector in dealing with the matter expeditiously. To state that we have not fulfilled  our function is incorrect …. [U]ntil the public protector has made any finding on the matter, the board has to await that decision. The fact that Nehawu may not appreciate the fact that the public protector is investigating does not reflect on the board but on Nehawu.” 

Platt denied that any board members were preparing to attend the Sun Met, calling the allegation “inflammatory and wholly incorrect”. On the issuing of bingo licences, Platt said “most of these allegations are based on suspicion without any factual underpinning. It is clear that Nehawu is aiming at creating a narrative that is factually incorrect.” 

Notwithstanding Platt’s denials, Motara raised the union’s complaints when asked by the M&G about what led to the board’s collapse. According to the MEC, these complaints were forwarded to the board, which did not respond.

When Mbele was appointed, she went about correcting some of the issues identified by Motara, who had been in the MEC position since October 2022. 

According to documents seen by the M&G, Mbele suspended the gambling board’s senior human resources manager, Zandile Gumede, its acting chief operating officer, Lucky Lukhwareni, and Marimuthu, who was the senior manager for gaming control. The precautionary suspensions were enacted pending investigations. 

Marimuthu was replaced by Bodila, who was appointed by Mbele as acting senior manager for gaming control from 30 January and 30 July 2023. According to Bodila, he was appointed acting company secretary in February.

Mbele told the M&G that the suspensions were made in accordance with a legal opinion obtained by the MEC in January following the Nehawu complaint, as well as complaints by a human resource service provider and a disgruntled licensee.

Mbele described the suspensions, each implemented just a week after her appointment as acting chief executive, as an act of “decisiveness”. Bodila said: “We could not wait for the organisation to crumble before we started acting.”

According to Mbele, because the GGB has no board, she does not need to seek concurrence to make decisions related to suspensions now, unless there is a decision that is above her pay grade, in which case she will get the okay from the MEC.

“Obviously she’s got her legal team. She’s got her advisers that look at the Act, the policies. We’d have a conversation and then make the necessary decisions. For this. That’s how we run an organisation. That’s how you run any organisation, in the absence of a board.”

In this context, Bodila said, there is no collapse of governance. “I wouldn’t call it a crisis of governance. Because, for me, a crisis was what was happening before.”

Nevertheless, Motara has already gone about replacing the board. On 14 April, she published the list of the 56 nominees for seats on the board. According to the MEC, new boards for both the GGBA and Gauteng Growth and Development Agency will be appointed by the end of May.

Meanwhile work is also underway to appoint a new gambling board chief executive. This could happen in absence of a board, if one has not been appointed, although the process was initiated under the now-collapsed board.

Motara released a statement expressing her disappointment in the M&G’s coverage of the matter.

“While it is easy to label everything as corruption, in this case the changes were designed to strengthen governance and improve service delivery …. Those affected were quick to run to the media and the courts seeking recourse, the fact of the matter is that nobody is entitled to these positions. Everybody, unlike in the media, is given an opportunity to serve for as long as they are willing to fulfil the mandate of each agency,” the MEC said.

“When the time comes to depart this should happen. The form and shape of the departure depends on the circumstances.”