Daniel Mthimkhulu, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) former head engineer deemed responsible for the “web of deception” that saw the country paying R2.6-billion for trains not suitable for the local network, has been found guilty of fraud.
The guilty finding against Mthimkhulu was made despite valiant attempts from Prasa’s former chief executive Lucky Montana to defend his former colleague. Montana repeatedly said, during his testimony, that the convicted fraudster was innocent, despite the damning documentary evidence against him.
Montana resigned from Prasa in July 2015 after a series of Beeld newspaper reports that the state-owned company had spent R2.6-billion purchasing 25 diesel and 45 electric locomotives that were too tall for South Africa’s rail network. Mthimkhulu was the head engineer at the time of the acquisition.
On Monday at the Johannesburg specialised commercial crimes court, magistrate Benita Oswell tore into Mthimkhulu as she found him guilty on three counts of fraud for submitting fraudulent qualification papers to Prasa, including a fake doctorate degree that he claimed to have obtained from the Technische Universitat Munchen in Germany.
In total, Mthimkhulu submitted six fraudulent post-school qualification documents to Prasa, including national diplomas and a fake master’s degree from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Mthimkhulu was also found guilty of forging an offer letter of employment from German engineering firm DB Schenker in June 2010 to illegally hike his Prasa salary from R1.6-million to R2.8-million.
The court found that, as a result of his fraudulent qualifications, Mthimkhulu’s annual salary unlawfully grew from R64 530 when he began as an engineering technician in July 2000, to R1.6-million when he was promoted to executive manager for engineering services in April 2010.
Two months later, Oswell said, Mthimkhulu forged the DB Schenker offer letter “with the sole intention to defraud Prasa” through the rise in his salary. Mthimkhulu resigned from Prasa in July 2015.
During his trial testimony, Mthimkhulu said all his salary hikes and promotions over the years were based on his “exceptional performance” at the state-owned company.
He denied that he had submitted the fraudulent qualifications to Prasa, and that he had added the title “doctor” to his curriculum vitae, claiming that people at the parastatal had nefariously inserted dubious documents into his personnel file “due to political reasons”.
Mthimkhulu alleged that he had been framed at Prasa as part of a “political plot” because of the supposed infighting between Montana, whom he was seen to be close to, and former chairperson Popo Molefe.
On why he “demanded to be referred to as Dr Mthimkhulu” in all official Prasa correspondence, including his email address being changed to reflect the doctorate title, Mthimkhulu testified that it was only a joke that began when a Stellenbosch University academic he named as Professor Fourie apparently used to refer to him as “the doctor of trains”.
The allegation that he had insisted on being called “Dr” was contained in the charge sheet presented to the court by prosecutor, advocate Sithembiso Bhengu.
Regarding the June 2010 salary rise, Mthimkhulu said it was part of a counter offer, which Montana signed for and granted, for a job he received from another German engineering firm, PTEC Pressure Technology, and not from DB Schenker.
But the magistrate rejected all of Mthimkhulu’s versions, saying the former Prasa executive had repeatedly lied to the state entity for personal benefits. Oswell also rejected the authenticity of the PTEC offer, saying it was clearly bogus and contained a litany of spelling errors and inconsistencies.
“The fact that the accused [Mthimkhulu] insisted on being called Dr Mthimkhulu was part of the illusion to increase his standing within Prasa,” Oswell asserted, adding that Mthimkhulu stood to benefit from his “web of deception”.
Mthimkhulu cut a lonely figure and was visibly forlorn in the dock while his guilty judgement was being read out, with no one there to support him in the public gallery.
The convicted fraudster must return to court in late February for pre-sentencing, failing which a warrant of arrest will be issued against him.