The board of the South African National AIDS Council (Sanac) — which is responsible for overseeing donor funding for HIV/AIDS projects and co-ordinating the country’s response to the epidemic — has failed to extend the contract of its CEO, Fareed Abdullah.
The move has shocked observers as Abdullah is widely credited with stabilising and revitalising Sanac during his five-year tenure.
Sanac’s nine-member board is chaired by Gwen Ramokgopa, who was appointed Gauteng health MEC after Qedani Mahlangu resigned on Tuesday in the wake of the scandal over the deaths of at least 94 mentally ill state patients.
On Wednesday Sanac issued a brief statement saying the board had appointed Connie Kganakga, who has been heading its work on the next national strategic plan for HIV/AIDS, as acting CEO.
Abdullah’s contract expired on Tuesday. He said he was informed by the board just two weeks before that his contract would not be extended, despite having been encouraged to apply for the position.
He wrote to Ramokgopa last Friday warning that a leadership vacuum posed a reputational risk to Sanac, would demoralise staff and threaten funding.
"There is a risk of significant financial losses from donors who are considering investing in the trust. This could exceed R100m ," says the letter, a copy of which has been seen by Business Day.
Sanac heads SA’s Country Coordinating Mechanism for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and is overseeing a $304m grant for 2016-2019. It has been allocated another $353m for the three years to 2021.
Sanac spokeswoman Kanya Ndaki said the board felt extending Abdullah’s contract would put other applicants at a disadvantage. "The board did not want to do anything to compromise the recruitment process as Dr Abdullah has also applied for the CEO position," she said.
"The decision was then taken to look internally at senior management and appoint Dr Kganakga as acting CEO."
Applications were being shortlisted.
Anglo American’s former chief medical officer, Brian Brink, said the board’s decision had placed Sanac at unnecessary risk. "Sanac has made tremendous strides in the past five years. It has had clean audits under Fareed Abdullah and the Global Fund describes it as a model of how things should be done," he said.
Section 27 executive director Mark Heywood, who was Sanac deputy chairman between 2007 and 2012, said its audit and risk committee had written a letter to the board, warning that its actions were reckless. He said a faction of the board wanted to oust Abdullah because he ran a tight ship. "I think the board is trying to find a pliant candidate like [Eastern Cape head of health] Thobile Mbengashe."