Hawks’ slow Prasa probe slammed

No go: Only 13 out of 216 Prasa contracts were deemed regular. (Sizwe Ndingane/The Times/Gallo Images)

No go: Only 13 out of 216 Prasa contracts were deemed regular. (Sizwe Ndingane/The Times/Gallo Images)

NEWS ANALYSIS

Figures in the billions come up a lot, such as R3.5-billion paid for locomotives that are allegedly “not fit for purpose” or have “safety problems”. Another R4-billion was earmarked for security management systems, which allegedly involved at least one rigged tender process.

About 1.4-billion documents trawled through by forensic specialists have uncovered more than R14‑billion, and possibly as much as R24‑billion, in apparent fruitless, wasteful and irregular expenditure.

But perhaps the most worrying number to emerge from the battle to investigate alleged corruption at the beleaguered Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) is 18.

This is roughly the number of months the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation — the Hawks — has had to tackle the complaints brought to it by Prasa and its board, headed by chairperson Popo Molefe.

The investigations, which relate to two major contracts, have gone nowhere, according to the board, despite an offer to make its team of investigators available to assist the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), also a respondent in the matter.

As a result of the delays, Prasa has taken the unusual step of going the legal route in a bid to compel a fellow state agency to get the job done. The Hawks have dismissed the accusations as unfounded, but Prasa’s frustration is not isolated.

The new South African Federation of Trade Unions and the National Transport Movement have decried the situation and are threatening mass action if it continues.

There has been increasing disaffection with the Hawks in recent years over the unit’s failure to execute its mandate and its tendency to drag its feet over significant complaints, according to Lawson Naidoo of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac).

“They shouldn’t have to rely on people going to police stations and laying charges,” he said. “They should be doing it proactively. That’s their very mandate.” It’s “only a question of time” before a case is brought to compel the Hawks to do what they are mandated to do, he said.

Early this month, Casac wrote to the new acting head of the Hawks, Yolisa Matakata, to follow up on criminal cases, some lodged as far back as March last year, involving President Jacob Zuma and members of the Gupta family.

The inability of key organisations to implement their mandates was evidence of the “dysfunctional state we find ourselves in”, Naidoo said.

This account of the delayed and frustrated investigation as claimed by Prasa makes for a depressing read, though the Hawks have described perceptions that the
investigations have stalled as groundless.

Prasa’s court action comes against a backdrop of several other inquiries — by the public protector, by the auditor general and by the treasury — into alleged misdeeds at Prasa.

At the heart of Prasa’s case is the work done on two complaints referred to the Hawks, one relating to contracts for security management access systems at Prasa stations, awarded to Siyangena Technologies, and another for a contract awarded to Swifambo Rail Leasing, for the purchase of 70 locomotives. Both deals are currently the subject of separate court proceedings that Prasa has launched in a bid to have them set aside.

The contracts awarded to Siyangena are valued at about R4-billion and the Swifambo deal is worth roughly R3.5-billion. But the irregularities regarding these tenders are just some of the 142 matters that took place between 2008 and 2015 that Prasa has been investigating.

In court papers, Molefe says the Hawks, despite their initial enthusiasm, have failed to make progress on these complaints. This is despite what the board contends is mounting evidence of more than just procurement irregularities but serious corruption.

Prasa alleges, among other things, that there have been many unreasonable changes to the leadership teams and structures investigating the complaints, leaving the processes stuck at square one.

Prasa also contends that no investigation plans are in place despite the unit being in a position to prepare them since the beginning of 2016. It says the Hawks have also failed to co-operate with the NPA, as the unit is empowered to do under law, to help guide the investigation and enable assets to be preserved.

Prasa claims that, in the Swifambo matter, the Hawks have not taken witness statements or gathered documentary and computer evidence, and that they have failed to take receipt of Prasa’s investigators’ “numerous lever-arch files containing documentary evidence”.

Both the NPA and the Hawks
are opposing the action, and the Hawks’s spokesperson, Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, says the probe is on track and “yielding good results”, and that there is “good co-operation between our investigation team and Prasa”.

The corruption claims go up to the highest levels, and include deputy finance minister and former Prasa board chairperson Sfiso Buthelezi, as well as Prasa’s former chief executive, Lucky Montana. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

A parallel investigation by the treasury has recommended that Buthelezi be criminally charged for ignoring rampant mismanagement and alleged corruption during his tenure, according to the Daily Maverick.

The treasury’s investigation looked into 216 contracts awarded between 2012 and 2015 and found only 13 were above board. The same probe also recommended that Montana be criminally charged for his role in several contracts.

Prasa’s efforts to investigate these issues were not helped by former transport minister Dipuo Peters’s attempt to fire the board, which failed after Molefe and his colleagues challenged her action in court. But it did not stop two members from resigning, which left the board without a quorum.

Among the criticisms levelled at Molefe’s board is the expense — running to R150-million — of Prasa’s internal investigations.

Peters’s replacement as transport minister, Joe Mas­wa­nganyi, is also believed to be seeking to replace what remains of the board, even though its tenure ends on July 31.

Mulaudzi said the Hawks have the constitutional mandate to carry out investigation and “cannot
be constrained to execute that mandate based on somebody else’s judgment.”

Serious commercial investigations “are not a one day activity” he said and they depend “on the evidence supported to be obtained and whether the people involved are willing to release it”.

When it comes to forensic investigators the Hawks must follow internal processes and cannot be forced to appoint an outside service provider, he said.

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