Whistleblower: Misrule at trade commission

The International Trade Administration Commission of South Africa’s (Itac’s) senior executives are facing allegations of financial mismanagement and victimising employees. 

These claims are contained in a dossier compiled by a whistleblower and submitted to Parliament’s portfolio committee on trade, industry and competition, the department’s Minister Ebrahim Patel and the public protector.

Itac’s current and former employees have described the commission as a cesspool of mismanagement, harassment and victimisation allegedly spearheaded by its chief commissioner, Meluleki Nzimande, deputy chief commissioner, Dumisani Mbambo and general manager of corporate services, Phillip Semela.

Itac, which is tasked with, among other things, facilitating imports and exports and ensuring local industries are protected from the dumping of cheap goods, is already battling under the weight of a bloated workforce that cost at least 79% of its R108.9-million budget in 2019. 

Now its executive management is facing allegations of flouting fair labour practices, disregarding good governance and dishing out patronage to “favourite employees”. 

This has occurred under the eye of Nzimande, according to the whistleblower’s dossier, which the Mail & Guardian has seen. 

 When questioned, Nzimande denied fostering a hostile work environment. He told the M&G that he was aware of a “pattern” and of “disgruntled” current and former employees raising their grievances against the commission in different forums.

 In the dossier the whistleblower says Nzimande has protected Mbambo and Semela from facing the music despite there being evidence that the two have mistreated employees and “abused” their power. 

The whistleblower says Nzimande disregarded internal processes and rubber-stamped Itac decisions regarding the approval of tariff applications. He also allegedly interfered in investigations lodged by consultants and interested parties.

 “He would put us under undue pressure when dealing with these investigations,” the dossier reads. 

In one instance the whistleblower accuses Nzimande of unduly instructing the tariff investigation team to change an application from “not approved” to “approved” for tariff increases for a particular brand’s side-by-side refrigerators. 

In emailed responses, Nzimande has denied the allegations.

“The application met the relevant criteria for industrial policy. The chief commissioner has the prerogative to make input on the draft submissions at any stage … this includes challenging recommendations of the investigating teams,” said Itac’s spokesperson, Thalukanyo Nangammbi.

Eight Itac employees have laid grievances against Mbambo, who is accused of intimidating and harassing his juniors. Pending investigations against him, Nzimande has refused to place Mbambo under suspension saying the work of Itac would suffer without its deputy commissioner, according to the dossier. 

It was also alleged that Mbambo threatened to fire employees who did not report to him directly. The dossier adds that there is an audio recording of Mbambo telling an employee that he would “crush [their] confidence” and “you are wasting your time by reporting me to the union. The Itac Nehawu [National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union] is toothless.”

An independent investigation last year found that Semela had “inappropriately and unlawfully” gained possession of an Itac employee’s personal information, who had alleged financial mismanagement by the general manager. 

Semela was placed on suspension pending the investigation into his role in Itac footing the cellphone bill of a retired employee for 14 months. Nzimande defended Semela, saying that an internal investigation had cleared him. 

Yet the public protector’s office has confirmed that it is investigating the case of financial misconduct against Semela.

Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian

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