Competition Commission head Shan Ramburuth. Picture: MARIANNE SCHWANKHART
AWARE OF DANGERS: Shan Ramburuth, former head of the Competition Commission. Picture: MARIANNE SCHWANKHART

SHAN Ramburuth’s forced departure from the Competition Commission for looking at porn online at taxpayers’ expense comes as no surprise.

It was no secret that he and his nominal boss, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, did not get on, and that Mr Patel was looking for a pretext to get rid of him. Friends and colleagues advised him to take the hint and leave.

Coming from the same unionist circles that Mr Patel used to move in, they knew how relentless he could be and told Mr Ramburuth this was a battle he would lose, sooner or later.

The ex-commissioner has been in Mr Patel’s sights at least since 2011 when he recommended that Walmart’s acquisition of Massmart be allowed. He opposed Mr Patel’s attempts to extract maximum political mileage out of the deal and Mr Patel never forgave him.

Soon afterwards Mr Patel instituted an investigation into complaints about Mr Ramburuth’s management style. He called in labour mediator Charles Nupen who spoke to Mr Ramburuth about a “walk-away option”. Mr Ramburuth said he would respond to the accusations against him in detail, and he did. This was the start of the breakdown in his relationship with Mr Patel.

Mr Patel’s newly created Ministry of Economic Development took the competition authorities away from Rob Davies’s Department of Trade and Industry in 2009. Those working in the competition space were puzzled about his motives, never suspecting he would try to use the Competition Commission’s remedial powers to extract politically useful concessions from firms the commission was dealing with. This was precisely what he set about doing, but Mr Ramburuth stood in his way.

Mr Ramburuth saw it as an attempt to encroach on the independence of the commission and would have none of it.

Mr Patel again intervened in a matter that Mr Ramburuth felt was strictly the commission’s domain when he attempted to impose conditions on the merger of Japanese paint company Kansai Paint with JSE-listed Freeworld Coatings that had more to do with promoting the industrial policy goals of Mr Patels’ department than with competition issues.

Mr Patel was deeply unhappy about the Competition Commission’s fast-track settlement with colluding construction companies. The fast-track settlement upset his attempts to make bilateral arrangements with individual companies, over and above the settlement they had reached with the commission. He wanted them to do politically useful things that would make him and his department look like they were serving some purpose, such as building schools.

Mr Ramburuth, not for the first time, told Mr Patel there were formal mechanisms for such things. He worried that if Mr Patel made separate deals outside the formal process it would open the way to corruption.

“Who knows, then, if the company is building a school and not doing extensions to my cousin’s house?” he asked then.

Squeezing the companies for more over and above the formal settlement they had reached with the Competition Commission would damage the credibility of the process, he said.

In private Mr Ramburuth made no bones about the fact that he and Mr Patel were “not getting on”.

In fact by this time there was no love lost at all between the minister and his commissioner.

Mr Patel kept trying to take credit for the hard work of the commission, Mr Ramburuth complained after Mr Patel at a press conference made it sound as if he, rather than the commission, had exposed the corruption in the construction industry.

“Mr Patel is just wanting in on this now, he’s got nothing else to show. There’s a sense in the commission that he is gate-crashing the party, butting in.”

More importantly, he felt Mr Patel was trying to undermine the commission’s independence.

Asked about this, he said: “We are a completely independent institution, I am completely independent. But are politicians trying to use us, exploit us for political agendas? Yes.”

He said Mr Patel resented the fact that he was not consulted or asked for his advice more often.

“My difficulty with him is that he feels we have not kept him in the loop enough. That we didn’t work more closely with him. He said this to me. But once you agree to inform a minister every step of the way you’re opening yourself up to being influenced. If we had to inform politicians every step of the way we would no longer be an independent institution.”

Soon after the fast-track settlement with the construction companies that had limited Mr Patel’s opportunities for political leverage, Mr Patel launched another probe into Mr Ramburuth’s management after the first one apparently hadn’t come up with anything strong enough to justify dismissing him.

Ironically, questions were being raised about Mr Patel’s own management style. Along with reports about unhappiness at the Commission were reports about how impossible it was for Mr Patel to keep staff in his department because of his autocratic management style.

Nevertheless, Mr Patel wrote to Mr Ramburuth saying he wanted him to take special leave while the investigation was under way, or he would be suspended. Mr Ramburuth refused to budge.

An advocate interviewed about 50 staff members. She seems not to have found enough to satisfy Mr Patel because Paul O’Sullivan was then hired.

Mr O’Sullivan is probably South Africa’s leading and most ruthless criminal forensics investigator. He nailed former police chief Jackie Selebi and investigates Mafia types. When you need enough dirt on someone to put them away or get them out the way, you call in Mr O’Sullivan.

Observers find it extraordinary, if not sinister, that Mr O’Sullivan should have been brought in to probe complaints about Mr Ramburuth’s management style. Mr Ramburuth may or may not have shouted at his staff, but if there was a suggestion that he might have been involved in something criminal, you can be sure it would have been leaked just as Mr O’Sullivan’s report, presented to Mr Patel, was leaked.

In spite of Mr O’Sullivan’s efforts, it seems the best he could come up with is that during an overseas business trip in 2011 Mr Ramburuth blew R123,000 viewing porn using his office laptop.

When he got back the amount was interrogated and condoned by the chief financial officer. There was no comeback. It was only when Mr O’Sullivan’s report revealed the money had been spent watching porn, which is perfectly legal, that Mr Ramburuth was forced to resign.

What impact this will have on the Competition Commission’s independence remains to be seen. What we do know is that the commission’s investigation into the healthcare industry will present plenty of opportunity for the kind of backroom political manipulation Mr Patel appears to favour.

The man Mr Patel immediately appointed in Mr Ramburuth’s place, Thembinkosi Bonakele, has been an occasional visitor to the Luthuli House headquarters of the ANC, and is a member of the (ANC-approved) SABC board. He is not known as a yes-man but is more of a political insider than Mr Ramburuth. He also happens to be the one who went to Mr Patel with complaints about Mr Ramburuth’s management style.

• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times