Former Eskom chief executive Matshela Koko on Monday flatly denied that he knowingly took instructions from outside the state power utility on structuring deals with the Gupta brothers’ business empire and that those directives came from Salim Essa.
Testifying before the Zondo commission into state capture, Koko said it only with hindsight that he could accept that he was corresponding with an external party and not — as he was adamant he believed at the time — with then Eskom chairperson Ben Ngubane.
Evidence leader Pule Seleka sought for some three hours to establish Koko’s knowledge of the true owner of the email address [email protected] and the real identity of his interlocutor, who was sometimes identified as “businessman”.
Their correspondence included an email sent to Koko in December 2015 that set out the favourable terms on which Eskom was to enter into a R1.68-billion prepayment arrangement with Tegeta Exploration for coal.
In his version, Koko realised years later that the email must have come from outside the power utility and that, by extension, it must have been improper. He said that at the time he hardly read it and simply forwarded it for the attention of Ngubane.
The two-page email, dated December 10, 2015, spelt out the terms on which Eskom would proceed with the prepayment that would enable Tegeta Exploration to buy Optimum Coal Mine.
The deal had been approved by the Eskom board on the evening of 9 December in a round robin process that itself has made for hours of incredulous questioning at the commission as board members claimed they approved the contract without knowing it pertained to Tegeta and not Glencore.
Koko at first told Seleka it was unreasonable to test his recollection of an email received at a time when he had only five months earlier returned from suspension.
He then reiterated that the email address was given to him by Eskom’s former head of legal, Suzanne Daniels, to communicate directly with Ngubane to prevent a disconnection between the board and the executive.
“This is an email that I was given by Suzanne. All information sent to this email reached the chairman,” he repeated of his understanding of the arrangement.
Daniels has denied this version. On Monday, Koko interrupted Seleka to call his former colleague a liar almost certainly heading to prison for facilitating state capture at Eskom.
Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo said it was his understanding that in an earlier appearance before the commission — Monday was his fourth — Koko had conceded that he later understood that the address was linked to the recipient name “businessman”, hence the remaining issue was simply whether it had become clear that this in turn referred to Essa.
Under careful questioning from Zondo, Koko insisted that although two of a string of emails sent to the domain address featuring the name “businessman”, he neither associated this recipient name with Ngubane, nor wondered why it suddenly appeared on the emails flagged by the commission.
Koko asserted “human behaviour does not work like that” when pressed to explain why he failed to notice, despite clear anomalies, that he was not communicating with Ngubane.
Zondo asked how it was possible that in their meetings Koko and Ngubane never referred to their supposed email exchanges and realised that something was amiss.
“And he never said this is not my email address… at no stage he disassociated himself from this email address?” Zondo asked.
“Well, I never said I sent it to this address,” came the reply.
Zondo finally asked whether, with hindsight, Koko would agree that he must in fact have found himself in an email exchange with Essa.
“On the face of it, what I think one can conclude from the concessions you have made with regard to what appears to be or who appears to have been behind this infoportal address, namely it appears that it was Mr Salim Essa. It would follow, would it not, that therefore those emails you got from this infoportal address that were coming to you as opposed to those you were sending must have been from him?”
Koko said he would only concede that it now appeared that he was corresponding with somebody not employed at Eskom.
“All I can tell you, I am relatively convinced that it is an external party,” he said, adding that Zondo might be interested in Essa, but his only preoccupation was that he was conned into sending confidential company documents to a third party and this realisation had left him angry.
“I did not send Eskom information to a third party knowingly. Is it Mr Essa? Then we go into the probability issue … I will leave those probabilities to you.”
Former Eskom chairperson Jabu Mabuza told the commission in 2019 that Koko began using the email address in question when he returned from suspension to demonstrate to the Gupta family’s associates both what business opportunities existed at Eskom and how he could help them to exploit these.
Mabuza said Eskom obtained a court order that allowed the company access to establish that emails flowed from Koko’s server to the email address in question, and that Essa was the person on the receiving end.