President Jacob Zuma has apologised to former Eskom boss Tshediso Matona for the bad treatment he received when he was suspended from the power utility early this year, according to Mail & Guardian sources in the presidency and government.
In an unprecedented move, Zuma is said to have personally expressed regret to Matona in a face-to-face meeting held at the Union Buildings recently. The apology is bizarre, considering that the former Eskom board chairperson, Zola Tsotsi, insinuated that he had Zuma’s blessing when he decided to suspend Matona and three other executives.
Matona had been chief executive officer of Eskom for only seven months when he was unceremoniously suspended from the post in March this year. Though he was not directly accused of any wrongdoing, his suspension was linked to an inquiry into problems facing the power utility.
Now, in what appears to be an effort to appease the experienced economist, Zuma has apparently offered Matona a prestigious position as head of the National Planning Commission’s secretariat.
Three sources familiar with the proceedings have said Zuma apologised to Matona after senior government officials complained to the president about the unfair treatment he was subjected to by the Eskom board. Some of the government officials and politicians who have worked closely with Matona advised Zuma to get Matona back into the public service.
“A lot of people in government felt he [Matona] was given a raw deal by politicians,” a senior government official, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said.
“He is a man of integrity. He never had any shenanigans. He was never investigated for corruption. Instead, all the departments he headed in the past have received clean audits throughout. Why destroy his career?” the official said.
Matona is one of the longest-serving public servants in the country. A trained economist, his speciality has mostly been in trade.
A former director general of the department of trade and industry, he holds an honours degree in economics and politics from the University of Cape Town, a master’s degree in development economics from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, an executive management certificate from Harvard University and a Harvard alumnus certificate in infrastructure development.
In the early years of South Africa’s democracy, he was Pretoria’s trade diplomat at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.
At the time that he was appointed Eskom chief executive, the Cabinet hailed Matona as a person bringing “a wealth of experience” and being someone who is “conversant with the challenges facing the state-owned company”. It is against this background that his suspension came as a shock to many, particularly because he had been with Eskom for less than a year.
When approached for comment this week, Matona was only prepared to say he had applied for the position as head of the National Planning Commission secretariat.
“I can confirm that I have availed myself for the job that was advertised. The process to select a successful candidate is under way. It is only fair that I limit my comment to that,” said Matona, who has always preferred to keep a low profile.
His exit from the power utility was in the main driven by Tsotsi, who was believed to be a close Zuma ally.
At the time, there was much speculation that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was in charge of the implementation of Eskom’s turnaround strategy, was unaware of and surprised by the suspension.
Tsotsi later justified his action by saying that Zuma told him to “do what you need to”.
But the president distanced himself from Tsotsi’s comments and said in a statement that he had issued no such instruction. A day later, it was announced that Tsotsi had resigned.
Two months after Matona’s suspension, Eskom announced that the two parties had parted ways amicably and former Transnet chief executive Brian Molefe took over. Matona was reportedly given a R6-million golden handshake to leave Eskom.
Should he become head of the secretariat, Matona would lead a team that works to ensure the proper implementation of South Africa’s long-term development plan. The team guides the 25 national planning commissioners and works closely with the Forum of South African Directors General and a Cabinet committee to ensure that the medium-term strategic framework for 2014 to 2019 – the government’s plan of action for the next five years – is properly implemented.
The framework is the first five-year stage to implement the National Development Plan (NDP), aiming is to achieve an overall improvement in citizens’ standard of living.
Speculation about Matona’s appointment to the highest office to implement the NDP comes at the time when the country is facing tough economic challenges, a struggling rand and a stagnant economy. Zuma’s administration has been at pains to assure South Africans that a wide range of measures are being put in place to strengthen the economy and create jobs.
The presidency had not responded to written questions at the time of the newspaper going to print.