Agricultural Research Council in alleged turmoil

South Africa’s premier agriculture science institute, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), is purportedly on the brink of corporate collapse, according to disgruntled staff members.   

Acting CEO, Dr Hilton Vergotine, is accused of purging senior staff, with the latest victim being Group Executive: Impact and Partnerships, Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela.   

Vergotine confirmed that Dr Thula Mkhabela was indeed suspended but dismissed allegations that ARC is in turmoil. 

He said Mkhabela was suspended as per ARC’s internal policies and procedures.  

“The basis for his suspension is an ongoing internal matter that is being handled according to the ARC policies and procedures,” said Vergotine. 

Insiders said Mkhabela’s unceremonious suspension, which occurred last week on Friday, unnerved staff.  

According to the source, the latest developments negatively affects staff morale, performance and service delivery.

Vergotine, however, says like any public sector, management is working with the ARC Council to implement transformation strategies to make the ARC a performance-driven and self-sustainable organisation. 

“Additionally, the ARC is subjected to a Science Council institutional review process, whereby the required recommendation require solid stakeholder participation and improved implementation of expected plans involving direct staff participation, taking responsibility and motivation,” explains Vergotine. 

He added that it is unclear why ARC employees have not sought clarity or guidance through “our own internal processes or communication channels to raise their concerns or uncertainties”.  

The ARC in July, this year, bade farewell to its long time President and CEO Dr Shadrack Moephuli.  In his place, Vergotine, a general manager of risk and planning, was appointed, much to the dismay of some of the board and staff members.   

According to a source at board level, Mkhabela was touted to be the next Acting President and CEO.  

“Delegation of Authority confers this responsibility to either a CFO or one of the Group Executive Managers to fill in the void left by an accounting officer and not a junior,” said the source.  

In the last two months, senior management have allegedly been left completely frustrated by Vergotine ‘abrasive’ decision making, since taking over the helm.  

“One that aroused anger and resentment was the appointment of the current Human Resources Manager, Besa Muthuri, who is allegedly a Zambian national.” 

“While she is qualified and capable, it is the undertone by Vergotine and Muthuri to purge and sideline dedicated South African black scientists and corporate professionals at the ARC that seems to be the problem,” said the source.    

Vergotine dismissed this claim, adding that Besa Muthuri is a South African, employed after a competitive recruitment process.  

“The ARC has approved policies and procedures that are aligned to best practices and labour legislation that are duly complied with, which details the recruitment and levels of employment offered within the ARC,” he said.  

Aggrieved staff members apparently called on the ARC Board to fill in the vacancy of CEO and President as soon as possible to avoid “losing experienced scientists and the organisation being bogged down on governance issues for years to come.”

Mkhabela confirmed to Mzansi Agri Talk that he was indeed suspended and indicated that he’ll share details at a later stage.

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