SAWS Board held to account for CEO contract termination and fruitless and wasteful expenditure

Environment, Forestry and Fisheries

05 September 2017
Chairperson: Mr P Mapulane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The meeting could not go on as planned due to the absence of the Minister who had a family emergency to attend to, and also because of the absence of the entire component of the South African Weather Services (SAWS) board as was requested by the Committee.

In response to the Committee’s request, the board has issued a letter stating that it was not feasible for the entire board to attend a Committee meeting as there is an already scheduled board calendar of meetings agreed upon between the stakeholders and the board, but the chairperson will be present.

Members expressed disappointment in the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), the Minister and the SAWS board.   This was particularly so because the items on the agenda have been postponed continuously over a period of three weeks. MPs also considered the late communication of the Minister’s apology for inability to attend these meetings as unacceptable. The Committee could not continue to wait for a convenient time that would suit entities and departments before scheduling meeting.

The Committee insisted that the Minister must appear to give explanation on the media statement issued by the spokesperson of the Department regarding the interaction between the Portfolio Committee and the Department on the granting of permission to mine within the Mabola Protected Environment. The Committee considered the letter sent by SAWS board serving as an explanation for why the full component of the board could not attend the meeting as an insult to both the Committee and the Parliament as a whole.

It was proposed that the Minister should be invited to appear before the Committee on Wednesday, 6 September 2017 at 18h00 to provide explanation on the Mabola Protected Environment and the alleged fruitless and wasteful expenditure and the termination of the CEO’s contract will be addressed by the entire board in the fourth term

Meeting report

The Chairperson opened the meeting by tabling apologies from Ms H Kekana (ANC) who was running late and Mr M Mabika (NFP). A written apology was received from the Director-General and the Deputy Director-General (DDG) for biodiversity and conservation who were attending a programme in China.

An apology was also received from the Minister of Environmental Affairs 30 minutes before the start time of the meeting. The Chairperson read out the apology, which explained that the Minister could not attend the meeting due to a family emergency. The Deputy Minister also sent in her apologies saying she had to attend a Cabinet meeting. The chairperson of the SAWS Board also sent in a letter in relation to the decision of the Committee. The Chairperson remarked that the MPs were in a better position to respond to the letter while addressing the second issue on the agenda.

The Chairperson went ahead to read the letter sent by the board as follows:

“Briefing by the entire South African Weather Services (SAWS) Board on the detailed report on why they should not be held liable for the fruitless and wasteful expenditure following the decision to terminate the services of the former CEO on 2 November 2016.

Thank you for the invitation that was sent to my office on 30 August 2017 extending an invitation to the whole board of SAWS to appear before the Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs on 5 September 2017. Upon receiving your letter, I informed the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Honourable Dr Molewa as protocol dictates. Upon my discussion with the honourable Minister, we concluded that it would not be feasible for the entire board to attend a scheduled Portfolio Committee meeting as there is an already scheduled board calendar of meetings agreed upon between the stakeholders and the board. Your invitation falls outside those scheduled dates. Moreover, the board members already have scheduled meetings and this invitation clashes with prearranged meetings. However, if it is acceptable, the chairperson of the board together with the chairperson of SAWS human resource committee, are prepared to attend the committee meeting as scheduled by you.”

The Chairperson said the Committee expected an explanation from the Minister on the statement issued by the spokesperson of the Department regarding the interaction between the Portfolio Committee and the Department on the granting of permission to mine within the Mabola Protected Environment. The Committee also expected the SAWS board to submit a report on the reasons why Parliament should not hold the members of the board responsible for fruitless and wasteful expenditure and also demand that they pay in their individual capacity. The Minister was also expected to brief the Committee on her interaction with the board. These were the items on the agenda for the meeting and it required the presence of the Minister for the meeting to proceed.

Ms Limpho Makoto, Chief Operations Officer, DEA, said the Minister’s letter of apology explained the reasons for her absence. She went on to request that the Committee allow Department officials to read out the Minister‘s written responses and explanations on both matters.

The Chairperson explained that one of the items on the agenda had been scheduled since the previous parliamentary term. The Committee had to postpone because it had received a letter from the Minister saying that she would like to be present at the discussion. The Minister however now sent a letter informing the Committee of her inability to attend the meeting scheduled to discuss this issue.

The first issue should also have been addressed three weeks ago, as the Committee invited the Director-General to give an explanation as the accounting officer of the Department. However, he DG could not appear before the Committee to give said explanation because the Committee received a letter stating that the Minister was the one who issued the statement and would therefore, like to give explanations to the Committee. The matter was then postponed from last week to the current meeting due to apologies sent before the start of the meeting for the Minister’s inability to attend. The exact situation had repeated itself at the current meeting as the Committee only received a letter of apology from the Minister 30 minutes before the start of the meeting explaining reasons for her inability to attend the meeting yet again. This was despite the fact that the Committee sent a letter to the Minister last week informing her of the rescheduling the meeting to this week and requesting that she appeared before the Committee to give explanations as she had previously committed herself. The Committee also informed the Minister that a further postponement of the issue may not be possible.

The Chairperson also noted that the Committee had been engaging the Minister on the issue of the SAWS board since the beginning of the year, and the Minister had committed herself to giving an explanation to the Committee. The Committee wanted to finalise the matter in order to decongest its programme. It was however, disappointing that the letter from the Minister did not acknowledge the Committee’s correspondence on the rescheduling of the meeting.

He was dissatisfied by the fact that the Committee always had to wait for the Minister before matters can be disposed of. He expressed a concern on the recurring apologies and postponement of matters. Officials would not be able to respond to questions that may arise from the letter when posed by MPs. It was particularly important for the Committee to get direct responses on the statement that was issued in response to the MPs, which was considered an insult against MPs and the Parliament as a whole. Addressing these two issues was highly important as a fulfillment of the functions of the Portfolio Committee in holding the Executive to account and ensuring that public funds were utilised properly.

The letter from SAWS board was another issue of concern, as it constituted a slap in the face of Parliament to have to work its schedule around that of the board.

Ms J Edwards (DA) said that the letter sent by the Minister would not suffice as an explanation for issues at hand. She agreed with the points raised by the Chairperson.

Mr R Purdon (DA) shared the Chairperson’s disappointment. The duty of the Committee was clear. The Committee had been set up to hold the Executive to account. The treatment by the Department was disrespectful not only to the MPs, but to Parliament in particular. It was a slap in the face of Parliament and was unacceptable. Apologies sent in on the morning of a meeting were unacceptable. As far as the Deputy Minister was concerned, he remarked that the she was always absent from Portfolio Committee meetings.

He proposed that the Chairperson should take the strongest measures available to hold SAWS accountable.

Ms H Kekana (ANC) proposed that the Minister’s apology should be considered given the circumstances tabled in the letter of apology sent to the Committee. She proposed that the letters sent to be read on the Minister’s behalf should be allowed.

Mr T Hadebe (DA) said that the prayers and thoughts of the Committee were with the Minister as she supported her nephew through the medical surgery. He agreed with the points made by the Chairperson on the need for responses to be received directly from the Minister rather than have letters read by officials from the Department on behalf of the Minister. MPs would like to engage with the content of the letters and get responses from the Ministers on issues that may arise. It was particularly necessary for the Minister to respond to pending issues because of the way the Department disregarded the resolution made by the Committee. The Committee would like to know the person responsible for giving the mandate to disregard the said resolution.

In relation to the management of the entities, the Committee would also like to have details of the reasons behind the termination of the CEO’s appointment before the end of his term. The Committee needed clarity on issues surrounding the political decisions taken, and also on the issues around mining in the Mabola Protected Environment. Reading the letters sent by the Minister would not help the Committee to address these issues, as MPs would like to engage the Minister further.

Ms H Nyambi (ANC) said that the Committee should hold the Minister to her previous commitment to respond to these issues as stated in her previous letter to the Committee. She asked that the Minister’s availability should be confirmed.

Mr Z Makhubele (ANC) acknowledged the soundness of the apology sent in by the Minister before the start of the current meeting. He however, agreed with the Chairperson on the practice of sending in apologies late, which had become a norm with the Department. The apology should be accepted as the circumstances surrounding the absence of the Minister could not have been foreseen. The Department was urged to send in apologies within reasonable time going forward. The Committee still expected the Minister to appear in order to respond to these issues as the delegate sent may not be able to respond appropriately. He proposed that the chairperson of SAWS should respond to the letter relating to the scheduling of meetings in order to accommodate the Committee on pending issues.

In the light of the apologies before the Committee, it was impossible for the meeting to proceed based on the

The Chairperson said that the position of MPs to work around the schedule of the Minister before scheduling a meeting should be amended to reflect the opposite situation where the Committee scheduled a meeting and the Minister attended such a meeting. It should not be that the Committee would chase the diary of the Minister. He however, noted that the issue could only be postponed to next week Tuesday or an earlier date, but it could not be postponed further than next week. The Committee could not afford to postpone the matter to the next parliamentary term. The Committee will no longer receive impromptu apologies from the Department as such apologies undermined the Committee and amounted to a show of disrespect for the Committee. The Committee already sent a letter last week and it expected a response immediately.

The Committee empathised with the Minister, but MPs had been elected to carry out responsibilities and functions. The Committee was yet to engage on the decision to grant mining activities in the Mabola Protected Areas as it had been unable to conclude the process during the oversight visit.

A Department official informed the Committee that the Minister would be traveling to China for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) event over the weekend. This meant that the Committee might only be able to engage with her before she travels or after she returned.

The Chairperson replied that this supported his point about engaging with the Minister’s diary before setting up a meeting. The implication was that the Minister would be unable to engage with the Committee for the entire third term of Parliament, as there have been various commitments requiring her attention. It also implied that the Committee would need to work around the Minister’s diary regardless of whether or not there were urgent matters such as the ones being considered at the meeting that required her attention. He suggested a meeting to take place immediately after the sitting with the Deputy President at 18h00 on Wednesday, 6 September 2017. He asked the chairperson of the SAWS board to explain the letter sent to the Committee regarding the scheduling of meetings in alignment with the board’s diary.

Ms Ntsoaki Mngomezulu, Chairperson: SAWS Board explained that the letter of invitation from the Committee requesting the entire board to appear before it reached her office late. By the time she received the letter, it became difficult to get hold of other members due to other commitments. There was no intention to ask that the Committee should work around the board’s diary before requesting an appearance of the board before it. However, she only wanted to inform the Committee of the prior commitments of the board. There was no intention to undermine the Committee through the response of the board. She apologised on behalf of the board, for the misunderstanding.

The Chairperson asked for the mode of communication within the board. He pointed out that the letter sent by the Committee was a mere formality, as the issue had been included in the revised programme of the Committee for two weeks. The Committee would usually not send a letter. Once a matter has been scheduled in the Committee programme, departments and entities responded immediately. Using the late receipt of the letter from the Committee was not an excuse as the issue had been scheduled for two weeks and she should have been aware.

Ms Mngomezulu confirmed that she always received communications from the Committee. However, she sometimes received such communications late, especially when she was out on other duties. Her previous understanding of the communication from the Committee regarding the appearance of the board was that the board would be represented by its chairperson. However, the letter sent by the Committee emphasised the need for the entire component of the board to appear before the Committee. This prompted the response she sent to the Committee. She acknowledged her misunderstanding of the Committee’s request.

The Chairperson asked for the CEO.

Ms Mngomezulu replied that the CEO was on leave and the Acting CEO, Mr Mnkeli Ndabambi, was however representing him at the current meeting.

The Chairperson questioned Mr Ndabambi’s failure to pass on the proper information in the correspondence of the Committee to the board, which was to the effect that the entire board was expected to appear before it. This requirement was not only included in the letter; it had always been in the programme.

Mr Ndabambi replied that he would investigate this issue, as he could not explain the reasons behind the late communication of the correspondence to the chairperson of the board. He requested that a response should be given to the Committee after concluding his investigation on the issue.

The Chairperson noted that the Committee has battled several issues with the board, including the board undermining the Committee, completely misunderstanding the Committee, or display of general incompetence. The board has failed to respond effectively and promptly to issues raised by the Committee on several issues. The board’s manner of behaviour was unacceptable. The board acted as if it could not be held accountable, since it was being backed up by some powers. It was impossible for the Committee to go on with its scheduled programme with the board since it only appeared with a delegation from the board and not the entire component. The Committee needed an explanation for the money paid for services for which no value was received.

The Chairperson reiterated that the programme had been scheduled after a resolution in the second term to meet with the entire board. The resolution was made in the presence of the chairperson of the board and no changes were made to either the date or the agenda itself since then. The board was incompetent and he insisted that the entire board should appear before the Committee and there would be no consideration of scheduling a meeting to suit the diary of the board. The board has been appointed to perform public duties and should therefore, be accountable to the people they represent. Clarity was needed on decisions the Committee believed resulted in fruitless and wasteful expenditure. The Minister will also be expected to provide explanations as the representative of the shareholders. The Committee would have to seek a legal means of ensuring that the board appears before it, in the event that the board is unwilling to do so.

Mr Hadebe agreed with the Chairperson’s suggestion to summon the board to appear before the Committee to address the issue at hand. On no grounds would it be acceptable for the chairperson of the board to represent the board in this regard. The board might be battling a communication breakdown in terms of getting information from the Committee. He expected the CEO to table the report of the thorough investigation he has undertaken to carry out. He commented on the practice of the receiving information late from the board on previous occasions and he said that the same should not happen in this case.

Mr Makhubele said that his understanding was that the Committee would have no issues after getting an explanation on the implication of the third paragraph of the letter from the board. However, it seemed the meeting would still be scheduled to suit the board and the Minister. It seemed the issue of late notice of meeting also needed to be addressed. Once the communication issues of the board has been investigated and resolved, the Committee would be able to schedule a meeting with the board.

The Chairperson asked for an explanation of what happened at of iSiMangaliso where the information of the programme was not circulated promptly before the meeting.

Mr Riaan Aucamp, Chief Director: Strategic Coordination Support, DEA, said that the Acting CEO of iSiMangaliso Wetland park took responsibility for informing the chairperson late only on Saturday morning. In his opinion, the explanation though unacceptable, sufficed. The Department will ensure that information was disseminated to both entities and the board going forward.

Ms Makoto added that the Department took responsibility for the dissemination of information regarding the programme and request for the entire component of the SAWS board. This was based on the misunderstanding of the request from the Committee which the Department interpreted to be the attendance of the chairperson of the SAWS board as a representative of the entire board. The Department would also ensure direct communication with the board going forward, as the practice had always been to communicate with the executives who would then communicate with the board.

The Chairperson recalled that the Committee had requested for an explanation in writing from the Department on the issue of iSiMangaliso. However, with regard to the issue at hand, he reiterated that the programme had always been clear on the Committee’s expectation of the entire board to appear before it.

The Committee would schedule another meeting that would take place in the fourth parliamentary term, despite the fact that the matter arose in the second term. He hoped there would be no need to summon the board to appear before the Committee when the meeting is scheduled. However, the Committee would summon the board if and when it becomes necessary. The chairperson of the board was asked to indicate to the Committee by end of next Tuesday if the board would have an issue appearing before the Committee. In the event that the board would be unable to appear before the Committee, the Committee would process the summons to be issued against the board next week. The Committee was engaging with the Auditor-General on the same issue for which the entire board has been requested to appear before the Committee. He expressed displeasure over the unproductive meeting which was due to absence of the Minister and members of the SAWS board.

Mr David Lefutso, SAWS board member, requested the Committee to invite the Auditor-General to clarify and engage on the issue if necessary, especially since the Committee already mentioned an engagement with the Auditor-General.

The Chairperson was displeased by the interjection and recommendation of Mr Lefutso, which sought to teach the Committee how to carry out its responsibilities. The Committee would invite the Auditor-General if it deemed it necessary to do so. Mr Lefutso was asked not to repeat his behaviour in Parliament going forward.and he regarded Mr Lefutso’s comment as unnecessary and unhelpful to the Committee.

The meeting was adjourned.

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