HENNIE VAN VUUREN & MIKE MARCHANT: Is Tito Mboweni asleep at the wheel?
Questionable appointments, or failure to appoint people, remain a blot on the finance minister’s copybook. It raises the question: has he lost interest?
Tito Mboweni is a politician wrapped in contradiction. He clearly thrives on the warm affirmation he elicits from his 778,000 Twitter followers. He knows how to accelerate controversy — praising the cleanliness of Rwanda’s streets, contradicting the ANC leadership, toying with dropping Lesotho’s borders.
Despite mastering the craft of the politician, he seems a reluctant leader. Recently, he described being a politician as a "poorly paying, thankless and abusive job". If his modesty is to be believed, he was reluctant to accept the poisoned chalice of finance minister.
Though eminently qualified, he has made a string of poor decisions which raises the question: has he lost interest in the hard work of governance?
In three critical institutions, he has either signed off on questionable appointments or failed to appoint boards or leaders.
The Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA)
The FSCA — SA’s first dedicated market conduct regulator — has had no stability at the helm for the past 26 months. Yet its job is crucial: it was conceived to ensure better corporate accountability and protect the public from unscrupulous corporations.
Mboweni has inexplicably failed to appoint a permanent commissioner. Abel Sithole, the former chair of the FSCA’s predecessor, the Financial Services Board (FSB), has been a caretaker commissioner for some time. But Sithole’s appointment last month to head the Public Investment Corp (PIC) surely means he can’t do both jobs.
Open Secrets wrote to Mboweni a year ago to ask the reasons for this delay. He never responded substantively. It is not clear whether this was because of his disdain for the importance of the process, or disregard for the need to account to the public.
On May 20, Sithole, the principal executive officer of the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF), was also appointed CEO of the PIC. It’s a vital appointment, since the PIC manages over R2-trillion in pensions; yet it has a miserable governance record.
It is emerging from a crisis as a result of former CEO Dan Matjila breaching his fiduciary duties to make dodgy investments, including into Iqbal Survé’s Ayo Technology Solutions.
Since the PIC is underwritten by the public, it is vital that the appointment of Matjila’s replacement be transparent and open to participation.
Mboweni oversaw this process, and failed on both counts. There has been no forum for the public to even observe the process, let alone take part. Had there been one, civil society would have demanded answers to a number of questions about Sithole.
Not only did he chair the FSB when it oversaw the unlawful cancellation of pension funds, he also acted late when it came to the PIC’s misuse of GEPF funds under Matjila.
But Sithole’s appointment isn’t the only indication of poor judgment. There’s also the appointment of PIC board member Irene Charnley in July 2019. Besides other red flags, Charnley’s underperforming Mauritius-based Smile Telecoms Holdings benefited from a R1.7bn investment by the PIC in 2015. How did Mboweni imagine this conflict would be managed?
The Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors (Irba)
Irba regulates the audit profession. It is currently seized with investigating the apparent failure of auditors to spot fraud at Steinhoff and Tongaat Hulett, as well as auditors’ complicity in state capture.
Here, too, Mboweni has been lackadaisical. The tenure of Irba’s board ended in early May 2020, and no reason has been given for Mboweni’s failure to appoint a new board.
Equally concerning is the choice of the new Irba CEO. The last act of the outgoing board was to hire Jenitha John as CEO. Though experienced, John was the chairperson of Tongaat’s audit committee for nine years, during which its management cooked the books. John resigned from Tongaat in May 2019 after the scandal broke.
She now leads the regulator tasked with investigating the Deloitte auditors for their failure to identify the irregularities — auditors who reported to her at Tongaat’s audit committee.
The fact that Mboweni sanctioned the appintment is disturbing in itself, but his response to civil society’s outcry has been characteristically lethargic. He has said he will "review" the process if there are indications of impropriety, but in the interim, John has taken up the position of CEO.
With SA facing worsening economic prospects, public bodies need leaders with integrity to weather the storm. If Mboweni is asleep at the wheel, President Cyril Ramaphosa would be well advised to hand him a strong cup of Rwandan brew.
Now is not the time for lukewarm, lacklustre leadership.
- Van Vuuren and Marchant work at Open Secrets
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.