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AGRICULTURE AND LAND AFFAIRS PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
15 June 2005
AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH COUNCIL INVESTIGATION: MINISTER’S BRIEFING
Chairperson: Ms E Ngaleka (ANC)
Documents handed out:
The Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs had intended to brief the Committee on recent discrepancies within the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and provide a progress report on the subsequent internal investigation. However, the Minister did not have the required details to hand due to an absence of notification and adequate communication from the Committee. She said that the final report of the ARC investigation had still to be completed, but no new revelations had come to light thus far.
Members raised certain questions including the identity of the instigator of the investigation, the proposed relocation of a related research facility, continued failure to provide meaningful detail despite numerous requests, the current status of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the role of the Minister in monitoring developments within the ARC, and the appropriate way forward. Members agreed to formulate more questions at their next meeting and to arrange an interaction with the ARC management shortly.
Minister T Didiza declared uncertainty over the type of briefing required by Members. Members had expressed an interest in the current investigation within the Agricultural Research Council but the final report still had to be completed. No new information was at her disposal. An internal investigation by the Council had been initiated in November 2004 due to concerns over procurement, security and management discrepancies. A letter had been received from the ARC regarding the early retirement of Dr Aucamp. No background information had been provided and a meeting with the ARC was proposed to acquire further detail. The Council Chairperson would be instructed to brief the Committee on the latest developments.
Dr E Schoeman (ANC) asked whether the ARC investigation had been instituted by the Minister or by the Council. He expressed a concern that an internal investigation might suppress certain issues. Clarity was sought on the proposed relocation of the Institute for Pastures and Grazing from Roodeplaat to Irene, where existing buildings would be refurbished and utilised. The cost of relocation appeared to exceed projections for the development of a new facility. He claimed that the former Committee Chairperson had promised to raise Members’ previously expressed concerns with the Minister. Despite objections, the ARC management had proceeded with the planned relocation regardless. The ARC had displayed a lack of regard for concerns raised at a recent Committee meeting. An insensitive approach to agricultural research had manifested itself recently.
The Minister expressed regret that she had been given no notice on what Members required. The ARC investigation had not been initiated by her, and she awaited the outcome of the current investigation. The terms of reference of the investigation were unknown to her and the Members and any subsequent comment would be mere speculation. An urgent meeting with the Council and Members would be arranged. The issues relating to the Roodeplaat relocation had not been tabled with her and therefore no substantive answer could be provided. She would have raised certain issues with the Council if adequate communication from Members had occurred.
Dr A Van Niekerk (DA) stated that two recent ARC briefings to Members had been unsatisfactory, with a noted absence by the CEO. No meaningful information had been forwarded to Members despite frequent requests. Members were aware of the current investigation but insufficient feedback had been forthcoming and numerous rumours had circulated in the media. The ARC remained an important asset of agriculture and all possible steps should be taken to secure its future. Members wanted to know the current status of the CEO and whether divisions threatened the Council's stability. He asked whether the Department was ignoring the visible problems within the research entity that could have an adverse impact on agriculture in its entirety. Piecemeal access to information should be curtailed and clear explanations provided. The Minister should assist in this regard.
The Minister asserted that the details and validity of alleged rumors should be verified before comment. The acting CEO had been instructed to stand down and this had prompted the current investigation. She advised that Members compile a list of concerns for her attention and a responsive briefing would be arranged at the earliest convenience.
The Chairperson stated that no further questions to the Minister would be allowed. She proposed that Members formulate a written request to the Minister in due course. The ARC would be invited to attend an upcoming meeting to provide background information and substantiate claims. The additional information would enhance the content of the document for the Minister's attention. The Committee would ensure that suitable answers were provided and their oversight responsibilities were met.
Dr Van Niekerk recounted the reason for the present meeting as arising from questions raised at a previous Committee meeting. The former Chairperson had requested Members not to raise issues at that stage and had promised to raise the issues with the Minister and invite her to their next meeting. He sought clarity on the position of the Minister regarding the ARC in line with her responsibility to oversee the institution. The Minister should be aware of the latest developments within the ARC and be able to provide some account of the situation.
The Minister reiterated the lack of detail should not be construed as a disregard for her duty to account to Members. All previous requests to attend meetings had been honoured. Information on current ARC policy would not deal with the specific concerns of Members. No instruction had been received from the previous Chairperson as to requirements. She confirmed her commitment to ensuring the future of the ARC and acknowledged Members' right to be concerned. All reasonable steps would be taken to rectify anomalies and future strategy would be devised through mutual interaction between stakeholders.
Mr M Ngema (IFP) supported the Chairperson's proposal that a compilation of concerns be formulated.
Mr Schoeman reminded Members that the present meeting had been initiated at their request and attempts to stifle current discussion should be resisted. A way forward had to be identified and proposals by Members would contribute to a successful outcome.
Mr Ngema stated that the position of Members was not well organised and the Chairperson was merely providing a valuable opportunity for Members to reconvene in the near future where clear concerns could be highlighted and recorded. The Chairperson was not ‘gagging’ Members.
Mr B Radebe (ANC) suggested that Members first meet with the ARC's management and establish a clear understanding of the situation before compiling a directive to the Minister. A transparent debate among Members should precede any further action so that a united position could be encouraged. Continued conflict and confusion would remain if consensus could not be achieved. The Committee had to improve communication with the ARC and other similar entities.
Mr D Dlali (ANC) expressed regret at the current behavior of the Committee and supported the proposal that Members compile a written request for the Minister with detailed issues and concerns. Members should not regard the Minister as having been unprepared to make a substantive presentation. A proper structured format guiding future action should be devised to ensure progress.
Ms B Ntuli (ANC) reminded Members of their duty to assist the ARC if serious problems existed. A letter should be composed for the Minister after Members had further discussion with the ARC. The Minister should be approached to explain outstanding issues and discuss realistic solutions. The failure to produce a written request had sabotaged the present meeting.
The Chairperson confirmed that Members would raise issues at the next meeting and decide on the appropriate way forward. A document outlining concerns would be produced and a consensus position would be attained.
The meeting was adjourned.
AGRICULTURE AND LAND AFFAIRS PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
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