On the back foot

The com­mis­sion is do­ing it­self no favours by at­tack­ing its crit­ics

Financial Mail - - PATTERN RECOGNITION - Claire Bis­seker bis­sek­erc@fm.co.za Law firm

At a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee hear­ing last week, Com­pe­ti­tion Com­mis­sion head Tem­binkosi Bon­akele lashed out at the “in­ter­fer­ence” by politi­cians and “bias” of the me­dia which have been prob­ing the com­mis­sion’s con­duct.

In­ter­ro­gated by the port­fo­lio com­mit­tee on eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, Bon­akele grew rat­tled and ap­peared to re­sent ques­tions about the com­mis­sion’s brief­ing pat­terns, ex­pen­di­ture and VIP se­cu­rity.

How­ever, data sup­plied by the com­mis­sion in re­sponse to a series of par­lia­men­tary ques­tions by DA MP Michael Cardo sug­gests that the com­mis­sion does in­deed have a case to an­swer.

The first is that one law firm, Ndz­a­bandz­aba At­tor­neys, has raked in R72m from the com­mis­sion in the three and a half years since Jan­uary 2015. (The FM pre­vi­ously re­ported that the firm re­ceived R10.5m over 18 months.)

Headed by An­thony Ndz­a­bandz­aba, a for­mer sec­tion head in the com­mis­sion’s car­tels di­vi­sion, the Bryanston law firm was chan­nelled 31 out of 44 of the car­tel cases out­sourced by the com­mis­sion between Jan­uary 2015 and Jan­uary 2017 — 70% of all these cases.

The next most favoured of the seven firms con­sulted dur­ing this pe­riod was Chea­dle Thomp­son & Haysom, with just five cases (11%).

“The in­eluctable con­clu­sion to be drawn from these replies is that Ndz­a­bandz­aba At­tor­neys has made a killing out of the Com­pe­ti­tion Com­mis­sion,” says Cardo. “It has ben­e­fited sig­nif­i­cantly and dis­pro­por­tion­ately … This pat­tern cre­ates an im­pres­sion of anti-com­pet­i­tive­ness at odds with the com­pe­ti­tion reg­u­la­tor’s man­date.”

The rev­e­la­tion about pay­ments to Ndz­a­bandz­aba comes in the wake of the au­di­tor-gen­eral’s re­cent find­ing that the com­mis­sion in­curred more than R50m in ir­reg­u­lar ex­pen­di­ture by not fol­low­ing proper ten­der and pro­cure­ment pro­cesses dur­ing 2017/2018.

The com­mis­sion is also se­verely over bud­get, hav­ing in­curred a R69m deficit in 2017/2018 on top of a R78m deficit the pre­vi­ous year. De­spite its frag­ile fi­nances, it spent R1.46m a month on pro­tec­tion ser­vices in the 10 months to April 2018, or R14.6m in to­tal. Much of this went on pri­vate body­guards to drive the top four man­agers in a fleet of lux­ury ve­hi­cles.

The com­mis­sion says this was af­ter sev­eral in­stances dur­ing 2017 where lap­tops and mo­bile phones of its staff were stolen — some un­der what Bon­akele de­scribes as “mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances”. In any event, the se­cu­rity bud­get was slashed from R1.46m a month to just R74,660 a month from April this year, though the com­mis­sion awaits a se­cu­rity as­sess­ment by the State Se­cu­rity Agency.

Bon­akele ac­cused the me­dia of “bias” for a spate of un­flat­ter­ing ar­ti­cles, in­clud­ing Busi­ness Day’s con­tention that the com­mis­sion’s cal­cu­la­tions re­gard­ing in­dus­try con­cen­tra­tion are in­ac­cu­rate.

Bon­akele also dis­missed crit­i­cism by un­named “politi­cians” (pre­sum­ably Cardo) of the com­mis­sion’s han­dling of the banks’ for­eign ex­change col­lu­sion case and the ed­i­ble oils case — where the com­mis­sion re­ceived flak from the courts — as “in­ter­fer­ence on be­half of the re­spon­dents”.

Cardo re­gards Bon­akele’s at­ti­tude as “deeply un­for­tu­nate”. “As an MP, my role is to hold the com­mis­sion to ac­count,” he says. “The com­mis­sion has done some laud­able work, but I’d have greater faith if my con­cerns were met with less de­fen­sive­ness.”

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