/ 24 January 2022

Montana backs Prasa-fraud accused Mthimkhulu as court hears how he bagged the top job

Lucky Montana Testifies At Zondo Commission In South Africa
Lucky Montana, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa former chief executive (Photo by Luba Lesolle/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Despite more than R2-billion spent on trains that are allegedly unsuitable for the country’s rail network, Lucky Montana, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) former chief executive, backed fraud-accused Daniel Mthimkhulu, who allegedly committed a litany of corruption at the parastatal. 

Montana was bullish in his assertion that Mthimkulu was good at his job as an executive manager at Prasa, and that the accused fraudster played an important role in modernising what Montana said was the state-owned company’s archaic rolling stock and rail infrastructure. 

Montana resigned from Prasa in July 2015 after a series of Beeld newspaper reports that the state-owned company had spent R2.6-billion to purchase 25 diesel and 45 electric locomotives that were allegedly too tall for the country’s rail network. Mthimkhulu was the head engineer during the acquisition of the allegedly faulty locomotives. 

Montana was testifying in Mthimkhulu’s defence on Thursday at the Johannesburg specialised commercial crimes court, sitting in Palm Ridge. 

Mthimkhulu, who was Prasa’s head of engineering services from April 2010 to August 2015, is facing nine counts of fraud for allegedly forging an offer letter from German engineering firm DB Schenker to “unlawfully” hike his annual salary from R1.6-million to R2.8-million. 

Mthimkhulu also has fraud charges for allegedly misrepresenting his qualifications to Prasa, including a master’s degree from the University of Witwatersrand, as well as a doctorate degree in engineering management from the Technische Universitat Munchen (Munich Technical University) in Germany. 

The former Prasa executive has pleaded not guilty. 

According to the charge sheet, which was presented by prosecutor Sithembiso Bhengu, Mthimkhulu lied in July 2010 that he had conducted research work with the German university in the field of rolling stock and rail networks. 

The charge sheet added that the accused fraudster “demanded” that he be known as “Dr Mthimkhulu, and/or that in all correspondence addressed to him, the title Dr Mthimkhulu be used”. 

In total, Mthimkhulu is accused of having fraudulently stated to Prasa that he had acquired six post-school qualifications, including two postgraduate academic degrees. 

“The accused [Mthimkhulu] is not and has never been a member of the South African Institution of Mechanical Engineering and/or the Engineering Council of South Africa. The accused has never obtained and/or been awarded any [degree],” reads the charge sheet. 

Mthimkhulu had “unlawfully and with the intention to defraud Prasa” stated that he was a member of the country’s engineering regulatory bodies; that he had a membership number, which is known to the Mail & Guardian; and that he was “duly paying his membership subscription fees”. 

“The accused has managed to obtain and/or keep his employment at Prasa by creating a false and fraudulent profile, which induced Prasa to employ him and/or keep him in its employ to its prejudice.” 

According to the state, because of the alleged forged academic qualifications, Mthimkhulu’s annual salary exponentially rose from R64 530 when he first began at Prasa as an engineering technician in July 2000, to R2.8-million when the accused supposedly doctored an employment offer letter from a German engineering firm in June 2010. 

Mthimkhulu received his R2.8-million annual salary from June 2010 until his dismissal in August 2015 after an internal disciplinary hearing, in which he did not participate. 

But Montana, who signed off on the “counter offer” to retain Mthimkhulu’s services, said the offer the accused received was, in fact, from another German mechanical engineering firm, PTEC Pressure Technology, and not from DB Schenker. 

Montana said he had seen only the PTEC offer to Mthimkhulu, and first saw the DB Schenker offer letter when the investigating officer informed the former Prasa chief executive about it sometime in 2017. 

Montana added that it was not his responsibility to check the authenticity of an external offer letter, but that he would make a decision on whether to retain an employee based only on a prepared memorandum motivating for the “skill to be retained”. 

“Our human resources department within a division [of Prasa] … will make contact with the company to verify the offer. They [human resources] call the company [and] write emails to confirm that the letter is true,” Montana testified. 

Montana added that, by the time he had to make the decision on whether to increase Mthimkhulu’s salary, the former chief executive had received all the required information on PTEC’s alleged offer. 

“After applying my mind, I was satisfied that the decision to retain Mthimkhulu was the right one,” emphasised Montana. 

Before Montana’s testimony, Prasa’s human resources manager Lungile Gabela testified that Mthimkhulu had brought her the PTEC offer letter, and that she had transferred it to the entity’s corporate head office for counter-offer consideration. 

Gabela, who also testified in Mthimkhulu’s defence, stated that she had seen only  the PTEC offer, and not the one from DB Schenker. 

But prosecutor Bhengu said Mthimkhulu’s Prasa personnel file did not contain the alleged PTEC offer, but only the DB Schenker letter. 

When this was put to Gabela, she simply said: “I have no comment.” 

Bhengu added that both the PTEC and DB Schenker “letters” had the same date, 15 June 2010, and supposedly offered the accused the same position of engineering services consultant. 

“Is it possible that two German companies can offerMthimkhulu the same position of engineering services consultant on the same day?” Bhengu asked Gabela, to which she responded: “It is impossible.” 

Mthimkhulu’s trial continues.