Parliament’s portfolio committee on transport deemed it “not opportune” to interrogate the Gupta brothers in 2016 when the press reported that they were trying to rig the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) tender for new locomotives and to gain representation on the board of the entity, the Zondo commission heard on Monday.
The former chairwoman of the committee, Dikeledi Magadzi, testified that she could not explain the committee’s rationale, beyond the fact that MPs discussed the allegations but decided not to act on these further.
“Chairperson, I don’t necessarily have an answer as to why we did not call the Gupta brothers, but let me indicate that our discussion in the committee led us to a situation where we did not call the Gupta brothers,” she said.
“My recollection is that the matter was closed, and that is how I am able to say this is how far we went.”
This concession followed another that ANC MPs were bound at all times to respect the imperatives of the governing party while carrying out their parliamentary duties, as Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo grilled Magadzi about why the committee did not move heaven and earth to halt the waste of tens of billions at Prasa on her watch.
Magadzi said the Sunday Times report implicating the Gupta family, and the subsequent letter from Democratic Alliance MP Manny de Freitas suggesting they be called before the committee, was not taken to the ANC study group.
Toeing the party line
The committee was, therefore, not acting directly on party instructions on the matter, she added, but all ANC MPs were bound to be guided by the party’s manifesto when they arrived at the legislature.
She told evidence leader Alec Freund this was why she later opposed a motion for an ad hoc parliamentary inquiry into state capture.
“I am not in Parliament as myself; I am representing the African National Congress and that will ensure that each and every time I toe the party line and that is what I did,” Magadzi said.
“The ANC said we are not going to support that motion … When the party said ‘this is the route we are going to take’, you cannot deviate from the route the party has said you must follow.”
She added that she would, with hindsight, take the same decision today, out of loyalty to the ANC.
Magadzi began her testimony on her tenure at the committee by saying that MPs found themselves helpless to halt runaway irregular expenditure at Prasa, as it increased from about R100-million in 2013 to R24.2 billion-four years later.
She said the committee was frustrated that torched commuter rail carriages were not replaced, although billions were misspent every year.
It noted its concern in budget review reports and appealed to successive Prasa boards and transport ministers, but to no avail, she added.
“Chairperson, we were very much aware of the irregular wasteful expenditure, which was uncontrollable. We would engage with the chairperson and the minister,” she replied when Zondo interrupted Freund to grill her on the committee’s response to the crisis.
Zondo said he was shocked to read from late auditor-general Kimi Makwetu’s reports that Prasa’s losses mounted from about half a billion in 2014-15 to R15.3-billion in 2015-16, and then to R20.3-billion and R24.2-billion, respectively, in the two following years.
“It is quite a big jump. And this is when your committee has been around for at least two years or something, 2015-16, it jumps from R515-million to R15.3-billion. How is that possible?” Zondo asked.
“And you would have thought that somebody would hit the roof and say ‘this can no longer be allowed to continue’, and that the following year it would actually go down drastically. But no, it goes up the following financial year [to] R20.3-billion,” Zondo continued.
“So it is like all the people who were supposed to exercise oversight, they don’t care about this trend and yet, it is a trend that should shock them, that should make them want to do something they have never done before, on the basis that this cannot happen under our watch.”
Magadzi countered that “you can only do your bit, chairperson. Much as you raise these [issues] with the executing authority and with the board of governance, there was no change at all.”
Zondo suggested that, with all else failing, the committee might have turned to the president himself to raise the alarm.
A ‘plethora’ of boards
Magadzi said it did not help that there were three different transport ministers during her tenure as chair of the committee, and a “plethora” of Prasa boards. She singled out former chairman Popo Molefe as having made seemingly hollow promises to carry out his fiduciary duties.
But she faltered when Freund confronted her with the report in the Sunday Times on 19 June 2016, which prompted De Freitas to demand the Gupta brothers be called.
The report said the Guptas, then president Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane and their associates had pressed then transport minister Ben Martins and Prasa chief executive Lucky Montana to let a tender for 600 locomotives go to the South China Rail. Montana subsequently confirmed their brazen demand that the board be restricted and two Gupta nominees be named to the bid-adjudication team.
Zondo suggested that other controversies surrounding the Guptas at the time, including a plane carrying guests to a family wedding landing at Waterkloof air base, created a context within which the committee had a duty to act, yet it did not.
“Probably in hindsight I would say the committee should have done something but we decided to say ‘for us, this is something we cannot do’,” she eventually conceded.
Magadzi also confirmed that the committee in 2017 opted to drop plans to conduct an inquiry into Prasa, but she denied that this decision amounted to a cover-up. The committee opted not to proceed, not because some ANC MPs felt it was no longer necessary as the board had been dissolved, but because it did not have time in its schedule as it had three bills to process.
Molefe last year told the commission the board was dissolved because it persisted with an independent investigation by Werksmans Attorneys into irregularities at Prasa, to the chagrin of then transport minister Dipuo Peters.
He said the minister believed the probe was costly, and that the firm had been irregularly appointed. Magadzo indicated that she had shared the view that the appointment was not proper.
Her testimony followed that of other MPs last week as the commission focuses on parliamentary oversight or the lack thereof at the height of the state-capture scandal.
Zondo last week said the ANC would appear before the commission to face questions about whether it had aided and abetted state capture or worked, out of sight, to stop it.
He mused that the cost to the fiscus of the rent-seeking scandal might have been less ruinous if the party had not demanded that MPs put loyalty to the organisation above their constitutional duty to hold the executive to account.