Popo Molefe: Why does Prasa want to silence me?
Popo Molefe’s court victory last month, which saw the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) board reinstated, is apparently being short-circuited by an orchestrated bid to eject him from the state-owned rail agency and cripple the board he chairs.
Molefe says newly appointed Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi has “ignored” his letters requesting a meeting. Instead, Black Business Council (BBC) chair Sello Rasethaba allegedly tried to pressure Molefe to “walk away” from Prasa, claiming to have been mandated as an intermediary for Maswanganyi. Two other well-placed Prasa sources, independent from Molefe, confirmed the attempt to oust him.
“This chap doesn’t want to work with me,” says Molefe. “I am aware of a campaign against me, where meetings were held with board members in an attempt to coerce them to resign.
“The question must be asked: What is so big in Prasa that they want to silence me?”
Two board members resigned hours after the board was reinstated by the court.
The court found that the attempt by former minister Dipuo Peters to dissolve the board was “unlawful” and “irrational”.
On Wednesday, Prasa received a blow to its bid to invalidate contracts with security company Siyangena Technologies, worth about R4-billion, when the high court in Pretoria dismissed its case on a technicality. The case had been driven by Molefe, who claimed the contracts had been corruptly awarded.
Rasethaba would not elaborate on his “private discussions” with Molefe.
Molefe said: “I’m going public. They tried to pressure me into quitting. Sello and the secretary general [George Sebulela] came to my house on a Sunday, asking me to make my resignation public on the Monday. They absolutely insisted on seeing me that Sunday. I was in the company of the acting GCEO [group chief executive Lindikhaye Zide]. They can’t deny the fact. Whether they are mandated by the minister I don’t know for sure, but that is what they claim.”
Maswanganyi’s office had not responded to questions by the time the Mail & Guardian went to print.
Molefe’s attempt to root “out corruption at Prasa” has also been hindered by the resignations from the board of Zodwa Manase and Tefetso Phitsane. Vacancies on the board were not filled despite Molefe’s request to the minister to do so. These factors mean the board is not lawfully constituted and thus has no lawful executive decision-making powers. Molefe described the situation as an orchestrated bid to isolate him.
Manase cited confidentiality issues for not wanting to discuss her resignation. Phitsane said he “refuse[d] to work with Maswanganyi and the ministry of transport’s officials, because nothing will change. They treated us very badly. The moment after the court ruled that Peters was wrong and my name was cleared, I resigned.” He denied that he is part of a campaign against Molefe.
Molefe’s version has been confirmed by two independent sources close to the Prasa drama.
Said Molefe: “The board may not be able to make any lawful decisions now, but the minister must take responsibility for this. He did not fill the vacancies when I asked him to and he professed that he does not want to work with me.”
Prasa, with its budget of R172-billion to overhaul the rail system, has been a battleground of controversy for the past seven years. After Molefe took the reins, several politically charged investigations were initiated, including deals worth billions from which the ANC is accused of having benefited handsomely. Molefe, in a previous interview with the M&G, described the rail agency as a “farm”, where cadres came to “harvest” for years.
This week Prasa’s attorneys, Werksmans, were left scrambling after its defeat in the Siyangena case to safeguard Prasa’s second multibillion-rand court case – an attempt to recoup billions of rand from Swifambo Rail Leasing. Swifambo was contracted to deliver the Afro 4 000 locomotives that are too tall for the local rail network.
Delivering judgment in the Siyangena matter on Wednesday morning, Judge Roland Sutherland found that Prasa had come to court too late with its case, not keeping within the “180 days rule” as prescribed by the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA). The Swifambo case might face the same difficulties.
The contracts awarded to Siyangena have already been declared unlawful by the public protector in her damning report titled Derailed. Siyangena had to supply and install integrated security access management systems at various Prasa stations.
Molefe has blamed his predecessors and the rail agency’s infamous former group chief executive Lucky Montana for its ill-fortunes. In February last year Prasa approached the courts to declare the contracts unlawful, alleging the tender was rigged to suit Siyangena and “materially disadvantage its competitors”.
Molefe also alleged before court that Montana had received kickbacks of about R4.9-million. He said there was a “calculated effort” by Montana, former and current employees of Prasa and the management of Siyangena to award the tenders to the company.
Sutherland’s judgment followed a day’s hearing on whether the application was brought in time. The merits of Prasa’s case before court – whether the contracts were unlawful – were not even argued.
Sutherland said Prasa should have launched their application “from the date that it is aware of the decision [to award the alleged unlawful tenders] and the reasons therefore”.
Prasa’s counsel, Vincent Maleka, argued on Tuesday that Prasa’s current board, headed by Molefe, did not know of the impropriety until the Derailed report was published. This was opposed by Siyangena’s counsel, Werner Luderitz.
Sutherland said Prasa further erred in not applying to extend the 180 days, but rather asked the court to condone its noncompliance.
“There is no account of the progress of the projects, which were the subject matter of the tenders, the prejudicial consequences of successful review are not addressed and the public interest in getting the projects completed is not addressed.”
In the absence of these, Sutherland found there was “no application before court as contemplated by section 9 of PAJA” and that he “does not have the authority to entertain the review application”.
If Prasa wants to salvage the Siyangena case, it will have to take its chances with the Supreme Court of Appeal or initiate a new application asking for an extension.
Sutherland clarified that his judgment on the timing of the case “must not be interpreted to mean that this judgment purports to find that Prasa has no case to advance”.
In the meantime, says Molefe, he’ll see out his tenure, which ends on July 31. “I’ve always done the right thing. That is what will stick in the South African public’s mind. The ANC is digging its own grave. Let them continue to steal … They’re working the ANC out of government.”