Gama says the Gupta meeting was an ambush

Former Transnet chief executive Siyabonga Gama on Thursday described a visit to the Saxonwald home of the Gupta family as an “ambush” arranged by their associate Salim Essa, after applying the same word to the manner in which he has been implicated in state capture by witnesses before the Zondo commission.

“I was a bit annoyed, I thought I was going to meet Essa at his office and, when I arrived, I saw I was at the bottom of the residence,” he said early in his testimony to the commission on his fraught tenure at Transnet.

Gama said he expressed his displeasure to Essa at the end of their brief meeting with Tony Gupta, telling him: “You shouldn’t ambush me and bring me to people’s home.”

He said Essa had replied that the family was “influential”, and he had thought it would be useful for Gama to meet them.

For his part, Gupta had said that he hoped Transnet and the family’s business operations could co-operate in future.

Gama said there was never a follow-up to the meeting that took place around November 2015 after he had met Essa by chance in the office of Transnet chief executive Anoj Singh.

Essa subsequently called him repeatedly, and created the perception that he wished to meet him merely to discuss matters pertaining to Regiments, which at that point still appeared to serve as consultants to Transnet.

Transnet’s corrupt, ruinously costly relationship with Essa was painstakingly unpacked earlier this week as Gama’s predecessor at the state utility, Brian Molefe, was questioned about a raft of contracts he signed with entities linked to the man evidence leader Anton Myburgh described as the “money-laundering lieutenant” of the Gupta family.

Myburgh put it to Molefe that half of R78.4-million paid to Regiments, as a reward for an alleged R2.8-billion saving that never arose, went to Essa, who also had a hidden hand in technology companies that secured contracts with Transnet.

Molefe’s stock answer was that he signed off on contracts and payments on the advice of trusted staff, including Singh. He said he had similarly acted on a memo when he authorised the payment of R17-million in legal fees to Gama, although he lost his court  bid to overturn a finding of misconduct.

Like Molefe did in January, Gama delivered a statement when took the stand. However, at the instruction of Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, it was redacted to prevent him from implicating people without the prior knowledge of the commission.

Zondo said he was taking this precaution after Molefe, without warning, “implicated certain people” — a reference to his allegations that President Cyril Ramaphosa had held Eskom “to ransom” to the interests of Glencore.

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Gama said he felt the commission had treated him unfairly by failing to serve him with rule 3.3 in good time, or at all. Rule 3.3 specifies that the commission must notify someone if they are being implicated by a witness. 

Zondo apologised for the fact that the commission’s team dealing with Transnet had changed, adding that this may have caused disruption at times. He said this had been addressed, which Gama conceded, but the former Transnet chief executive nonetheless complained that this left him at a disadvantage in defending himself.

“I would like to address the commission on the prejudice I have suffered at the hands of the legal team since May 2019, up to the present day, although in recent days things have improved dramatically,” he said.

“The failure to provide me with sufficient notice severely prejudiced me, as I was often unaware that such allegations were being levelled against me. Sometimes I would turn on the television and there is somebody speaking about me and I don’t even have the rule 3.3 notice; sometimes I would get it two weeks later, sometimes I would not get it all.

“The commission has at all relevant times been aware of the fact that I take the allegations against me seriously and do not appreciate that I have been ambushed by the tactics which have been quite evident being employed by the evidence leaders tasked with Transnet,” Gama said.

And, again like Molefe, Gama strenuously denied any wrongdoing. He listed his achievements as the head of Transnet Freight Rail at length and said his had been a mission to strengthen a key parastatal.

Gama resisted any notion that he knew of then president Jacob Zuma’s insistence that he be made the chief executive of Transnet, despite facing serious disciplinary charges, and that this led to the firing of Barbara Hogan as public enterprises minister.

In fact, Gama told Myburgh, he challenged the outcome of his disciplinary hearing purely in a bid to secure the biggest possible settlement after an unfair process he likened to “a Nuremberg trial” before withdrawing under objection from Zondo.

“I just wanted to see how much money they would give me to go away,” he said. “I said to them: ‘Pay me so much I will leave you in peace and you can do your shenanigans without me’.”

Gama was found guilty of misconduct and fired in 2010 for awarding a contract to an international company, despite the board’s instructions that the work in question be done by a division of Transnet.

He was reinstated in 2011 after Malusi Gigaba replaced Hogan as minister of public enterprises. A former head of legal services, Siyabulela Mapoma, has told the commission he was tasked by the board with engineering Gama’s return and had understood this to be Zuma’s wish.

Gama struggled to explain why he managed not only to get his job back, but also secure a settlement, which included reimbursement for the high court cost order against him, despite the damning findings against him.

“It warrants careful consideration whether there wasn’t perhaps something else at play,” Myburgh insisted.

Gama’s response was that he had been wronged, negotiated hard and was perhaps “lucky”. 

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He became chief executive four years later but in 2018, he was fired as chief executive for misconduct relating to the acquisition of locomotives worth R54-billion from General Electric, Bombardier Transport, China South Rail and China North Rail in 2012.

The tender, for 1 064 locomotives, stands as one of the biggest scandals of the state capture project and saw kickbacks of some R5-billion flow to the Gupta family and Essa.

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