Philanthropist and financier George Soros has elected a new board for the South African arm of his Open Society Foundation, citing as the reason the fact that three members of the previous board had been elevated to President Thabo Mbeki's office.

The three replaced are Mojanku Gumbi, a special adviser to Mbeki, Leah Gcabashe, who heads the president's legal team and Anthony Heard, former Cape Times editor working as a special adviser to the presidency. Heard had indicated previously that he was planning to resign from the board.

"The main objective of electing a new board is to ensure the replacement of three members who are on Thabo Mbeki's staff," Soros said in Johannesburg.

"While I have a high regard for Mr Mbeki and serve on his investment council, I was concerned that the board should be an independent body of civil society." Soros wrote to the board members in November advising them that he would be electing a new body during his visit in December, leading to media reports that he had sacked these members.

"There has much incorrect reporting - this is not a sacking or a firing," he explained, "but rather a renewal."

These people have served faithfully without pay for a number of years and for that I thank them."

All three of these members were elevated to the President's office while serving on the board and will now be replaced on Soros' foundation.

"Some previous board members will remain to provide continuity but none of the new board members are in politics," he explained.

Also on the way out is current IEC chairperson Brigalia Bam, who until now also chaired the board of Soros' foundation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's deputy commissioner Alex Boraine, SAfm's Tim Modise, the Star's Peter Sullivan, Rhoda Kadalie, Hans Middelman and Khehla Shubane.

Three members of the previous board will stay on at Soros' behest, Judge Fikile Bam, Zyda Rylands and FirstRand Chairperson GT Ferreira, although Michael Savage, the foundation's former Chief Executive who resigned last November, will renew his association with the foundation as a new board member.

Rylands, head of finance for Woolworths' retail outfit, will act as a transitional chair until the new board convenes to elect a permanent figurehead.

The other new members of the board include former Secretary for Safety and Security Azhar Cachalia, Legal Resources Centre director Professor Bongani Majola, Natural Urban and Reconstruction Agency director Nonhlanhla Mjoli-Mncube and Financial Fiscal Commission chair Murphy Morobe.

The board will be downscaled from 11 members to nine - with the ninth person still to be confirmed, according to Soros.

Brigalia Bam welcomed the election of the new board.

"It is a good idea to get new people with a new vision," she said, "I'm sure it will be a success." This board presides over a major amount of funding, directed into the country by Soros, having distributed R58-million to various organisations during 1999 and over R225- million in the seven years of its existence.

The 70-year-old Soros operates two separate funding organisations from within South Africa, the Open Society Foundation and the Open Society Initiative.

While the Foundation directs grants to science, education and criminal justice programmees in South Africa specifically, the Initiative provides over $5-million (about R38,75-million) in funding to nine countries in the southern Africa region, including Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

These donations are taken from Soros' personal cash reserves and the financier explained that he gained nothing from his contribution other than personal satisfaction.

"This is my own money, not my investors' money - this is how I use my profits not how I make them," he elaborated. - Sapa-Inet-Bridge