Mystery Mr N rattled PIC

Anonymous whistle-blower James Nogu (or Noko) loomed larger than life at the judicial commission probing impropriety at the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) this week.

But, like the “now you see him, now he’s gawn” Mister Mistoffelees, the conjuring cat in TS Eliot’s poem, no one can nail Nogu down.

Two sets of emails, more than a year apart, contained serious allegations about PIC executives and directors, and Nogu became a key factor that led to former chief executive Dan Matjila’s resignation. He also knocked the final nail in the coffin leading to a mass resignation of the PIC’s nonexecutive board members.

The effect of the emails is undeniable. Whole board meetings were devoted to them. Evidence before the commission was that Nogu seemed to be so well informed that it was as though he had a board seat himself.

But to refer to Nogu as “mister”, or him, suggests his gender is not in question. This is not so. Nor are Nogu watchers even sure they are dealing with an individual — some think the emails may be the work of a collective, a clowder, to return the cat metaphor.

Board member Dudu Hlatshwayo said it was possible that the pseudonym was being used by several people, all with their own agendas.

“I think James Nogu is a number of people and I believe that some are inside the PIC and some are outside the PIC. It’s more than two, it’s more than three,” he said.

Speculating about Nogu’s identity, board chairperson and Deputy Finance Minister Mondli Gungubele told the commission the content of the Nogu emails revealed that whoever was behind them had detailed knowledge about how the PIC functions and was possibly inside the institution.

He said the board was constantly divided when it had to deal with issues regarding Matjila and it appeared as though Nogu knew that. “I doubt it could be somebody who is confidently speculative from outside,” Gungubele said.

He also drew attention to a call he received on the day of the State of the Nation address from “Kleintjie”, who claimed to be from the Hawks. In their discussion, Kleintjie said: “Nogu is within the board.”

PIC directors who have come before the commission headed by retired Judge Lex Mpati, said, after the emails arrived, normal PIC business was put on the back burner. Special board meetings were called more frequently and were longer, with the focus being on Nogu’s latest allegations.

The first emails were sent in September 2017, in which Nogu accused Matjila of corruption and said he had been instrumental in facilitating a R21-million loan to a company with links to an alleged lover. Nogu also accused Matjila of asking a company that had previously received funding from the PIC to give the “girlfriend” R300 000 to settle her personal debt.

Matjila denied the claims.

A special board meeting, which lasted more than six hours, was convened shortly after those emails surfaced.

Hlatshwayo said the board had debated extensively about how to deal with the allegations and protect the PIC.

“The board was aware of the state capture and Gupta narrative that was pertaining at the time.

“In corridors, we would honestly ask ourselves as to whether or not, by immediately suspending the CEO [chief executive officer] before we have satisfied ourselves that there was substance to the allegations, by so doing, the board would not be delivering the CEO and the CFO [chief financial officer] and the PIC to the Guptas on a silver platter,” Hlatshwayo said.

Malusi Gigaba was finance minister at the time and his deputy, Sfiso Buthelezi, was the PIC chairperson.

Board member Sandra Beswick said their appointment to the treasury had “exacerbated [her] fears of state capture of the organisation and the importance of maintaining [her] fiduciary duties”.

Matjila was subsequently absolved of any wrongdoing by an internal audit review, which was meant to establish the truth about his response to the allegations and nothing more.

The way the board dealt with the allegations was challenged by Gungubele when he became board chairperson in May last year. He had been tasked to provide then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene with a report on how the Nogu allegations were dealt with.

Gungubele wanted to know why the board had not conducted a forensic investigation of the allegations, as advised by the head of internal audit. He told the commission his meeting with the board had been very “difficult” and his concerns “were not able to find resonance with the board”.

Gungubele’s time at the PIC has been described as characterised by division and mistrust in the board.

Beswick said it was clear Gungubele was not happy with the process the board followed and she felt as though “he was trying to pressurise [them] to reopen the matter and commission an external investigation”, despite the internal process that cleared Matjila.

The United Democratic Movement (UDM) filed a court bid to force Nene to suspend Matjila and conduct a thorough investigation of the corruption allegations. Gungubele sided with the UDM instead of opposing the application with the rest of the board.

When the forensic investigation, led by advocate Geoff Budlender SC, was finally commissioned, he also found that Matjila had done nothing wrong regarding the R21-million loan and that the woman was not his girlfriend. But Budlender’s report said Matjila omitted to inform the board that he was under pressure from then state security minister David Mahlobo to help the woman with a R300 000 loan.

Matijla resigned in November last year, saying he was tired of the investigations and because there was a breakdown in trust between him and the PIC.

But Nogu, still operating from the shadows, was not done. He resurfaced towards the end of January this year, using the pseudonym James Noko, with a string of emails accusing four board members of impropriety, including Gungubele and Hlatshwayo.

Two days later, the board received an ultimatum from Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to resign or be fired. All nine issued a joint resignation letter but said they would be available to serve until an interim board was appointed. Mboweni has asked the board to stay in place while new appointees are found.

As for Nogu, whoever he or she is, or they are, remains out of sight.

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the M&G

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Tebogo Tshwane
Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial journalism trainee at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a general news intern at Eyewitness News and a current affairs show presenter at the Voice of Wits FM. Tshwane is passionate about socioeconomic issues and understanding how macroeconomic activities affect ordinary people. She holds a journalism honours degree from Wits University. 

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