Was Shan pushed?

2013-11-10 14:01

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The controversial suspension of John Oliphant, principal executive officer of the Government Employees Pension Fund, follows the resignation of competition commissioner Shan Ramburuth over spending more than R120?000 of taxpayers money on pornography while on an overseas trip. But the two cases may not be as they seem

Former competition commissioner Shan Ramburuth may have violated policy by surfing porn on his work internet connection. But some of his former colleagues, academics and professionals in the competition-law sector feel he was unfairly targeted because of his fractious relationship with Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel.

A number of sources within the competition commission and the competition-law sector who City Press spoke to on condition of anonymity said they felt that the probe into Ramburuth was initiated to find some “dirt” to force him to resign.

Some argued the porn issue was used to tarnish his reputation and force him into a position where he had to resign due to the moral outrage.

The fractious relationship between Ramburuth and Patel is well documented and first emerged when the two clashed over how to handle the Walmart-Massmart merger in 2011.

There was also tension over the commission’s fast-track settlement programme for the construction cartel investigation, where senior staff felt that Patel was politically grandstanding on the back of the commission’s hard work.

This by insisting that he lead the press conference to announce the results of the settlement process and the whopping R1.46?billion in fines paid by the guilty construction firms.

Ramburuth stepped down late last month after a forensic report by Paul O’Sullivan & Associates – detailing how he visited 25 pornographic websites between August and November 2011 – was made public by the Sunday Times.

His data bill in October 2011, while using a government-issued SIM card overseas, is reported to have been R123?000. But it is not clear what percentage of this was due to accessing porn and what was for legitimate use.

The investigation by Paul O’Sullivan & Associates was the latest chapter in an ongoing investigation into Ramburuth’s management style.

Patel ordered the investigation into his management style in June last year after then deputy competition commissioner Thembinkosi Bonakele wrote to the minister complaining about Ramburuth’s leadership style on behalf of commission staff.

At the time, some sources within the competition commission, who asked not to be named, said Bonakele had been eyeing Ramburuth’s post for a while and was using certain circumstances and events at the commission to get the commissioner removed.

However, other sources argued that there was dissatisfaction in the commission with Ramburuth’s leadership style and that many staffers wanted the matter addressed.

Said one source: “Shan had been fighting this ongoing investigation since 2012, and it placed huge emotional and psychological stress on him.”

The source said that at one point late last year, the investigation appeared to “go dead” and then Bonakele resigned from the commission earlier this year.

However, when Ramburuth stepped down last month, Patel appointed Bonakele to head the competition commission.

A couple of sources, both within and outside the commission, said they did not believe that Patel and Bonakele had conspired to get rid of Ramburuth just because they had both had an interest in getting rid of him.

There may be more to Oliphant’s suspension

It appears as though the suspension of John Oliphant, the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF) principal executive officer, may not be as straightforward as it seems.

Oliphant was suspended last month pending the finalisation of a disciplinary process relating to the outcome of a forensic investigation into supply chain management practices at the fund.

According to media reports, his charges relate to a contract with a communications company.

The R1?trillion fund is South Africa’s largest investor and has a shareholding in most local companies on the JSE. It has 1.2?million active users, and 360?000 pensioners and beneficiaries.

Some have questioned the motive behind Oliphant’ssuspension, particularly as another senior fund official was charged together with him, but was not suspended.

“In considering Mr Oliphant’s suspension, the board considered the seniority of his position and as such deemed it essential that in order to respect the due process of the investigation, he be suspended pending the outcome of the disciplinary enquiry,” the fund said in a statement.

“The board has given consideration to the position of the other GEPF official under investigation and concluded that the official should not be suspended.”

A source close to the probe said Oliphant had informed the fund that he would go on special leave. However, he was subsequently suspended.

The fund said it would reserve comment until the disciplinary process was finalised.

Oliphant, widely respected in the asset management industry, holds other positions, including that of chairperson of the Code for Responsible Investing in SA. He is also a member of Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and the Principal Officers’ Association.

Ansie Ramalho, chief executive of the Institute of Directors in Southern Africa, said Oliphant’s suspension would be discussed when the committee meets.

Matthew McAdam, head of communications for the UN-backed PRI, where Oliphant sits on the advisory committee, said the committee chairperson was informed of the suspension and investigation, but PRI cannot comment until the investigation is completed.

In a statement he released through his Twitter account after his suspension, Oliphant said he was confident he would be exonerated.

He is appointed by the board of trustees – appointed by the finance minister and the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council – at the fund, which is chaired by ANC MP Arthur Moloto.

- Nellie Brand-Jonker and Mamello Masote

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