Human Sciences Research Council Board vacancies: shortlist rejected by Committee

Science and Technology

30 June 2009
Chairperson: Dr N Ngcobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee had been briefed, at its last meeting, by the Department of Science of Technology on the need to appoint candidates to the Board of the Human Sciences Research Council, and on the reasons for the delays so far. The Department had been asked to submit the curriculum vitae of every candidate, not just the shortlisted candidates (identified by a Committee appointed to assist the Minister) to Members. The Committee was now briefed on the process used to arrive at the short list of thirteen names. Several Members expressed concerns about the names submitted, on the grounds that the list was not properly representative of demographics and that the gender could also be improved, that negative allegations about other candidates had been made, arising out of conduct on other boards, and that some candidates were not sufficiently distinguished in their field. The Committee agreed that academic qualifications or background were not the only criterion, as a broader-base and experience, particularly on the ground or in rural communities, would add value and relevance to the work of the Board. The Department was asked to assist by advising the Committee if it had reservations about any of those suggested for appointment. After discussion, the Committee decided to reject the shortlist. The Department would convey to the panel the Members’ concerns, their suggestions as to who should be included, and the fact that the Committee would prefer a larger short list so as not to complicate the process. The Department would try to provide an amended shortlist to the Committee by the following week.

Meeting report

Shortlist of candidates for appointment to the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) Board
The Chairperson explained that at its last meeting the Committee had been briefed by the Department of Science of Technology on the need to appoint candidates to the Board of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), and on the reasons for the delays so far. Members had asked to see the curriculum vitae (CV) of every candidate, not just the candidates who had been shortlisted by the selection panel tasked with assisting the Minister. The Director General of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) had now been asked to explain how the short list was processed. Members had expressed some concerns about the inclusion of foreign nationals on that list.

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director General, DST, briefly outlined the process so far. He noted that advertisements were placed in a number of newspapers calling for nominations for the appointment of the board members of the HSRC. A number of CVs were received, which were subsequently provided to the Portfolio Committee.
A selection panel had been appointed by the Minister, which included representatives from the Presidency, University of Kwazulu Natal, and the Director General of the Department of Education, to ensure a balance of the issues of HSRC. That panel had asked who, from the current Board members, would be available and eligible to serve on the new Board. Members of the Board were only permitted in terms of the Human Sciences Research Council Act to serve two terms. The panel evaluated the board members to recommend those whom they felt would add value, and then, after considering all the names, provided the Minister with a short list.

The panel had considered five criteria for representation on the board. These were that someone should be included from civil society, three members from the current Board to ensure continuity, a person with financial or Human Resources expertise, to ensure that the broader governance issues of the Board were considered, persons of stature in their sector and persons from the rest of the African continent, as required by Section 5(5)(b) of the Act. After deliberations, a shortlist of thirteen members was drawn up. The Minister would then be required to appoint a Chairperson and between six and nine other Members. The Chief Executive Officer also sat on the Board ex officio.

Dr Mjwara said that this list was available last year. Existing members were asked to stay on to make inputs until the process was finalised. The Minister would take recommendations from the Portfolio Committee and approach Cabinet to approve the appointment of the board. It was embarrassing for the DST to have to keep asking existing members to stay on for an undefined period, and this also raised risks of a gap in governance of the HSRC.

Mr P Smith (IFP) told Dr Mjwara that the Committee had raised concerns at the last meeting. One related to the number of names on the shortlist; Members wondered why there were only thirteen, when there could be up to twenty names. The Act had said clearly that the persons to be appointed “must have distinguished themselves in a field of human sciences or possess special qualifications, experience or skills relating to South African function of Council”. Members were concerned that not all of the thirteen would fit within that definition. They had also expressed concerns that some applicants who seemed to be admirably qualified with very distinguished careers were not included in the shortlist. Although the Act did specify that there should be a distinguished scholar from the African continent, three from outside South Africa were being recommended on the shortlist. Finally, the requirements of the Act clearly set out that the demographics of the country had to be reflected, and the short list did not reflect that.

Mr Smith, having studied all the CVs, felt that some names should have been included on the shortlist, while others that were on the shortlist could have been excluded. The criteria set out in the Act did not appear to have been followed closely when the shortlist was drawn.

Ms M Shinn (DA) focused on existing members, noting that five names had been put forward, yet three had been included on the shortlist. One of South Africa’s top researchers and human sciences academics had been excluded from the list. Two of the three on the shortlist did not appear, from their CVs, to add much value and had minimal research contributions, which she thought rendered them unsuitable. She was also concerned that there were no white candidates on the short list. She was also concerned that the person nominated to represent civil society had neither applied, nor apparently been headhunted by HSRC and she questioned how then his name had got on to the list.

Prof W James (DA, alternate member) echoed these concerns. He noted that one of the most distinguished HR academics had made himself available, but was not shortlisted. He enquired whether Dr Mjwara had interrogated that list. 

Ms M Dunjwa (ANC) asked whether three names on the shortlist represented continuity from the previous board. She pointed out that previously-serving board members would have acquired experience, and she did not necessarily think that they should be evaluated on the basis of their research.

Dr Mjwara responded that the panel had thought that thirteen was a reasonable number, taking into account that the maximum number to be appointed was nine, including the CEO and Chairperson. It was possible for extra names to be added to bring the shortlist up to twenty, but since the panel had felt that some of the applicants had not distinguished themselves sufficiently in the sector to warrant being on the shortlist they had considered that the shortlist was reasonable in number. Whilst it was true that the board members should understand the content of the HSRC’s work, there was also a need to have a balanced board, and, although the Act did not specify this, the panel had thought that experience in and the ability to interrogate financial matters was important. People could always be co-opted on to the subcommittees of the Board, but it would be useful to have a board member who could ask the right questions in board meetings. As far as the demographics went, he said that perhaps the shortlist could be improved, and the panel would be happy to include one or two extra names. He confirmed that the DST had interrogated the short list. The Chairperson of the Board was expected, annually, to provide an evaluation of the contributions made by each member of the Board. He took the point about the HR expert but stated that the panel had also tried to ensure that gender balances were met. This particular person could be added to the shortlist. The representative from civil society had been suggested by the panel, since there were not sufficiently strong candidates from civil society who had themselves applied. Three of the existing members were nominated to ensure continuity.

The Chairperson asked for clarity on continuity, asking what would happen if the panel had suggested people that the HSRC would not like to see re-appointed.

Dr Mjwara said that this would be addressed by conveying that information from the HSRC to the panel.

The Chairperson asked what would be the situation if the Committee felt that some of the names included could be problematic.

Dr Mjwara replied that official communications could address the issue. He noted that not all three existing members needed to be appointed, but three were shortlisted to allow some flexibility to the Minister.

Ms Dunjwa asked whether experience gained by a nominee on a board other than the HSRC would also be taken into account.

The Chairperson added that if a person had not served well on another Board, that should be taken into account. Parliament had had some bad experiences with other boards. He would like to avoid the situation where the same people were sitting on several boards and protecting their own interests. Members formed an activist Parliament and had been tasked by the President to avoid these situations coming into existence. People who already served on several other Boards would not be able to devote their time to serving on yet another. He noted that the Standing Committee on Public Accounts had discovered last year that fourteen members of the SAA Board were serving on over 100 other boards and clearly had no time to spend properly on each.

Mr Smith proposed the Committee should recommend that the short list be increased to twenty. Since the board must be representative, he proposed that this shortlist should include two white, two Indian, fifteen black, and one foreign nominee. If gender was an issue, he proposed three names, all of whom were female and had excellent research credentials. He believed that the addition of another seven names would make for a better shortlist.

Ms Shinn added that, in respect of the continuity requirement, five members had indicated their willingness to serve again. She proposed three of those for the shortlist, indicating that of the others, one had been removed from a previous post, and she believed that this acted as a disqualifier. Another had served on another troubled Board, and there was some debate about value that candidate would add. Two of those currently serving on the board did not, to her mind, have any distinguishing features.

Ms Dunjwa said that if expertise were the main criterion, then this became a political issue, since many South Africans had not had the chance to become experts during the apartheid years. A balance must be found. She did not believe that the Committee should prejudge on the basis of other boards, and she pointed out that some of the allegations against one candidate were not substantiated.

Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) suggested that the Committee should hold a workshop as soon as possible.

The Chairperson said that since this could not be held before August, it would delay the process.

Ms Ngcobo noted that published research was not always the issue; some people had done or were still involved in experimental work that could contribute much to the HSRC, which also deal with social issues. One candidate whom she named had been an “all rounder” in a number of areas, and could interpret research.

The Chairperson said that this Committee should be endorsing those with clean records and disregarding those who were under investigation. The board finally chosen should represent all the sectors in which the HSRC was working. It was an institution of high research, but also people who understood problems at ground level, and in rural communities. It would be a bonus if such a person had also equipped him or herself as an academic or at another institution. There was precedent for using this approach. The HSRC was very diverse. He pointed out that there were many distinguished black scholars, contrary to some misperceptions about black expertise in South Africa.

The Chairperson urged Members to apply their minds carefully to the CVs. He warned that it was a human failing to have a bias in favour of “next of kin”. He did not think that a person under investigation should be considered for the shortlist when there were others with clean records available. He would not like to see problems from elsewhere being brought on board. He urged that Members should not limit themselves to proposing those with long research credentials. HSRC itself had many very learned researchers, and the Board was supposed to be a more versatile entity, with experience in backgrounds of research, society and community understanding. The three foreign nationals had excellent records and peer reviews. The Act said at least one must come from Africa, to link HSRC with other African countries. He agreed that maybe the area of demographics could be looked into.

Ms Dunjwa agreed with the Chairperson that problems should not be taken on board, but pointed out that the allegations had not been substantiated. She believed that demographics should not concern race, but skills and experience.

The Chairperson reiterated that anyone with any “baggage from the past”, whether or not the matter had been finalised, should not, in his view be nominated. He suggested that Dr Mjwara could assist the Committee if the DST felt that a person should not be appointed because of problems caused in other institutions, or investigations pending.

Mr Smith agreed that anyone under investigation should not be nominated. He also agreed that this should not be a purely academic Board. He asked for clarification on the process, and whether Members could make recommendations as to candidates regarded as quite special.

The Chairperson clarified that it was for the Committee to decide and to instruct the Department. However, Members did not want to rely on hearsay and he asked that the DST should provide his office with the correct information on candidates.

Mr Smith proposed that the Department should revise the short list and return to the Committee on the following Tuesday.

Ms Shinn felt it would be helpful to speed up the process, and to recommend excellent people who had not previously been included on the short list.

The Chairperson pointed out that the short list was compiled by the panel appointed by the Minister. This had compiled thirteen names. This Committee could not add its own names.

Ms Dunjwa said the Department had listened to the Committee’s concerns and must try to accommodate them.

Ms Ngcobo agreed with the Chairperson. The Committee must merely look at the list in front of it, which had been drawn in accordance with the process set out.

The Chairperson clarified that the Members could either approve the list, or tell the Department it could not approve the list, in which case it would be sent back, and it would then be up to the panel and Department to take into account the Committee’s concerns. The Committee had to be specific in stating what it wanted. NO new names could be added but the Committee could insist, for good reasons, that certain names be taken out.

Dr James said the Committee had discussed the matter, and had clearly exercised their minds. He noted that reservations were expressed on two of the shortlisted candidates. It had also clearly recommended that some of the original applicants should appear on the short list. He proposed that the DST should tell the panel that the Committee would like to suggest three more names from the long list, and revert by the following Tuesday.

The Chairperson cautioned against saying that the Committee had reservations about two candidates without concrete evidence.

Dr James felt that the allegations made in regard to other boards were in fact irrelevant to the present considerations. The reservations applied to whether the two candidates had the qualities required, particularly whether they were sufficiently distinguished in their field or could offer relevant qualities to the Board.

Mr Smith suggested that since the shortlist had been formally presented, it should be formally rejected by this Committee. Alternatively, these discussions could be regarded as preliminary indications, and a revised short list could be presented next week. He did not think that the Committee should limit itself to suggesting that some of the thirteen names be removed. The shortlist at present did not meet the requirements of the law, in his view, and thus was subject to challenge. He suggested that the list should be comprehensively revised, not only to take off those that the Committee found problematic, but also to include those who would add value. A reduced list would create more problems because it would not satisfy the requirement of representivity. He still thought that a short list of twenty names should be produced.

The Chairperson asked Dr Mjwara to convey this back to the panel and try to have a new shortlist before next Tuesday.

The meeting was adjourned.


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