Brand SA paid ex-CFO a R4m-plus sweetener to go away

The mystery remains as to why state-owned Brand SA paid former CFO Nadine Thomas a settlement worth more than R7.5-million, including more than R4-million as a sweetener, just to leave.

The contentious settlement agreement came after the labour court ruled last March that Thomas was unfairly dismissed in 2019 in a disciplinary process akin to a factional witch- hunt and should be reinstated. At least R3.4-million was legally due to her as a compensation.

According to Brand SA insiders, the amount is seen as excessive and raises questions about the entity’s financial management under acting CEO Sithembile Ntombela.

A whistleblower told Sunday World that Thomas was more senior than Ntombela, a general manager, and the R4-million sweetener was a ploy to eliminate her from the CEO race.

Thomas previously served as acting CEO between April and August 2018.

“The only senior employee in the company who was eligible to be CEO was Thomas. For this reason, to keep her job, Ntombela chose to settle with her,” said a whistleblower, adding that the sweetener amount was also under-reported.

Ntombela, who was on leave and could not comment in detail, said her appointment as acting CEO had nothing to do with Thomas. “She was suspended in 2019, long before I was appointed acting CEO. I’m not sure how she would have been a leading candidate when Brand SA had two CEOs after her suspension and before me assuming the role.”

Among the reasons cited for negotiating a settlement with Thomas after the labour court ruled that she should be reinstated due to unfair dismissal was that some senior managers who gave evidence against her in the nullified disciplinary process were still in the service of Brand SA.

“The same managers (and former board members) have since been investigated by the Hawks for a number of years following the unfounded allegations of corruption by (former CEO Kingsley Makhubela),” according to a Brand SA letter to Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, dated May 25.

In the letter, Ntombela blamed Thomas for providing Makhubela with the corruption allegations, adding that Brand SA, which champions a positive image of South Africa, suffered reputational damage as a result thereof.

“Based on the fact that the Hawks investigations are still ongoing, there is a reasonable apprehension by the managers referred to above that (Thomas) will continue working with Makhubela to continue tarnishing the image of the organisation with unfounded allegations.”

Ntombela said a charge of “incompatibility” had also been preferred against Thomas during the disciplinary process but was never pursued due to cost considerations, and it became academic after she was dismissed.

But it seems Ntshavheni was also not convinced of the reasons given. She said on Thursday that the settlement deal was signed off before her tenure under former minister Mondli Gungubele.

“I have enquired whether the necessary concurrence was sought, and the matter has been referred to the incoming board (whose registration with the Masters’ Office is being finalised) to attend to the matter.”

When asked about Ntombela’s more than three-year-long acting stint, Ntshavheni stated that there was nothing suspicious about it. She added that she had duly extended Ntombela’s appointment during her tenure after the previous board appointed her.

In the 2022–23 annual report, Brand SA stated that Thomas was due to be reinstated as CFO under the labour court judgment, however, they reached a mutual separation agreement on June 1, requiring Brand SA to pay R7,5-million in a full and final settlement.

The report disclosed that Brand SA had submitted a security bond of R3 379 966 to the labour court. Thomas received this amount as part of the R7.5 million mutual separation agreement.

Brand SA dismissed Thomas in June 2019. The disciplinary process started with two charges against Thomas, but only one was pursued: that she had breached her duty of good faith and trust.

She allegedly misled former acting CEO Thembi Kunene-Msimang in November 2018 by saying that she was not in contact with former CEO Kingsley Makhubela.

The charge continued: “Given the state of flux and fragmentation of the organisation, your unauthorised and undisclosed contact with the CEO destabilises an already fragmented organisation in that you failed to disclose your contact with the chief executive officer.”

But, in the scathing judgment delivered last year in March, the labour court disagreed.

Judge Andre van Niekerk also observed that Thomas was a victim in the crossfire between opposing factions within Brand SA.

Van Niekerk noted that the termination of employment was “contrived and intended to serve the agenda of a faction in the ‘fragmented organisation’ described in the charge brought against Thomas”.

He said Brand SA’s case manifestly lacked merit, displaying as it does all the hallmarks of an appeal, and the application bordered on a hopeless case.”

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