In his third day of testimony to the Zondo commission on Wednesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa justified serving as deputy president at the height of state capture as the best route for him to fight corruption, but did not quite manage to dispel disbelief.
The problem for the president, as he claimed that time has vindicated his approach, was the previous evidence of, in the main, former Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) chairperson Popo Molefe.
Evidence leader Vas Soni confronted Ramaphosa with Molefe’s account of how, in desperation, he approached him and the rest of the ANC’s top six as he tried to turn around the rail agency but then transport minister Dipuo Peters failed to appoint a permanent chief executive, although the entity had not had one for some five years.
Ramaphosa said he recalled a meeting at which Molefe raised sustained attacks on the Prasa board by acting chief executive Lucky Montana and the detection of corruption in a R2-billion tender for the modernisation of the Braamfontein depot.
Soni pointed out that Molefe said he was invoking the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) to halt it, but had pleaded with the top leadership of the governing party to come to his assistance to root out corruption and turn around the agency in vain. None of them, including the deputy president, reverted to him, he said.
Ramaphosa said he found Molefe’s statement disingenuous.
He said the top six had urged Molefe, whom he described as a great friend and comrade, to place any evidence of malfeasance before the relevant investigating authorities, and found it surprising that such a strong character would complain that he felt powerless.
It was not within the party’s power to resolve the problems to which Molefe had pointed; he merely had to report it to those fit to investigate such.
“We must rely on our state agencies to be able to do this, and, therefore, all these matters must be reported to these agencies so that something can be done,” Ramaphosa said.
Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo interrupted the questioning to say that he found the body of evidence he had heard on Prasa profoundly depressing.
“My recollection is that unfortunately he did not get that support … On his evidence, it was like the matter would be looked at some time in the future and he said nobody, including you Mr President, came back to him to say ‘you know that problem you raised, we want to help’ or ‘how are you doing?’
“He said he came to secure support because he believed that he had been deployed there by the party.”
Ramaphosa replied: “I find that a bit disingenuous for a person who has been clothed with all the powers of the position to then say ‘I felt powerless’ and the support that he sought on the issue of the PMFA was a given, and he said ‘this is what I am now going to do because I am being subjected to these attacks, and I am going to use the PMFA’, and we said ‘go ahead’.
“I find it disingenuous that a man who is a chair of an entity would say ‘I am powerless and I need your full and total support’, when he should have known it would be there anyway. So the question is … he should have gone ahead.”
It was up to the audit and risk committees of Prasa to act and, if not, then Molefe should have taken recourse at other state agencies.
“Mr President, let me say this, the Prasa issue is a depressing issue. I have heard a lot of evidence. It is a depressing issue,” Zondo replied.
“One of the things I don’t understand is how it was possible that for something like five years there would be no permanent CEO appointed and I ask myself the question: ‘Well the minister responsible was aware of this situation, it ought to have been reported to either the president of the cabinet’.”
Molefe had mentioned that he filed reports to cabinet.
“How was this entity supposed to be successful when it had no permanent leader?” Zondo asked.
He said Molefe’s board had, if he recalled, acted diligently, recruited a candidate and presented the name to Peters, who failed to make the appointment.
“When we asked her questions about that, quite frankly, her explanations left much to be desired. She gave explanations that are difficult to understand. They leave you with the question: But how was it possible?” Zondo said.
He asked if the matter did not reach cabinet, at a point at which irregular expenditure had become “astronomical”. A governing party that is invested in who gets appointed to the executive or board positions in state-owned entities, as Ramaphosa had explained in testimony on cadre deployment in the morning, would be expected to be proactive in finding out how its deployees were faring, Zondo suggested.
“Therefore, if the ANC did not seem so keen to get involved here, it is difficult to understand.”
Ramaphosa replied that, at the time, the government functioned in silos and that on his watch every effort had been made to improve that situation.
Soni commented that it was sad that Molefe had been trying to fight corruption and, eventually, was seemingly sacrificed for his efforts.
Ramaphosa similarly struggled to explain his support for the secondment of Brian Molefe to Eskom in 2015, when he was asked to enumerate his achievements at Transnet up to that point, especially in light of the blighted, corruption-ridden locomotive contract that was underway at that point.
The president answered that he had little insight into Brian Molefe’s work at Transnet, but had been impressed with his previous track record.
He was referred to evidence before the commission from former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas that the Gupta brothers had told him, when trying to bribe him with R600-million to become a pliant finance minister, that the likes of Brian Molefe and then public enterprises minister Lynne Brown had flourished under their protection.
Ramaphosa said he found this “shocking”, but had not been aware that this was apparently the case.
He firmly refuted Brian Molefe’s attempts to turn the state capture stakes on him by telling the commission in January that the president’s former business incarnation as a major Glencore shareholder had seen him sabotage Eskom’s interests for that of the commodities giant.
Ramaphosa, who as deputy president headed the Eskom war room, said he had duly divested from his business interests when he returned to politics and had been nowhere near the tussle over the Optimum Coal Mine, which passed hands from Glencore to Tegeta in a defining moment in the state capture scandal.
As with Brian Molefe’s secondment, Ramaphose skirted the issue of Dudu Meyeni’s appointment for a second term as SAA chairperson while he served as deputy to Jacob Zuma.
“It belongs to a chapter which one can entitle ‘the anomalies of our time’,” he said.
In the morning, Ramaphosa said it had been his calculation that the best way to fight state capture was from within the government and the governing party, and, therefore, he had served as deputy to Zuma while it raged at its worst.
He said he threatened to resign at one point — when Zuma imposed Des van Rooyen as finance minister in 2015 in a blatant attempt to capture the national treasury — and believed this had helped to ensure the rapid reappointment of Pravin Gordhan to the key post.
“The final option for me, which is what I chose, was to remain in my position as deputy president; not to resign, not to acquiesce and join in, or not to be confrontational, but to work with others in the executive to resist the abuses and bring about change where we could.”