/ 13 August 2021

Ramaphosa’s Zondo refrain of ‘I did not know’ rings false

Cyril Ramaphosa at a political discussion and debate themed How can we preserve the legacy of former President Nelson Mandela? in Durban on July 16 2014. Rajesh Jantilal, AFP
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP)

The evidence and the events, including the unrest of July, got in the way as President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his second turn at the Zondo commission, said serving as deputy president during South Africa’s period of state capture had been the best way to help end it and consign it to the past. 

After testifying that he was wholly unaware of the alleged excesses of Brian Molefe and Malusi Gigaba, to name just two, Ramaphosa gave the impression of being more of a bystander to the raiding of the state than a man who worked from the inside to stop it.

Evidence leader Anton Myburgh on Thursday asked how everyone, including Ramaphosa, missed it that Molefe frequented the Saxonwold home of the Guptas at the centre of state capture, while overseeing a Transnet contract to buy 1 064 locomotives that contributed to a total of R57-billion flowing to the brothers’ money-laundering interests.

“I just want to ask you this, Mr President, for those people how is it possible this happened in the light of day? It was coordinated literally a few kilometres up the road,” Myburgh said.

“How is it possible that no one in a position of power that was not complicit identified this and raised the red flag? How is it conceivable? It is impossible.”

Ramaphosa replied: “Chairperson, it is possible and conceivable.”

Those involved in corruption cunningly enlisted protection at the top, he said, adding that the government would henceforth be careful to appoint people of integrity.

“So what we have been through is a good lesson of what not to do,” he said.

But Ramaphosa’s attempt to draw a line under the past did not hold as evidence leader-in-chief Paul Pretorius turned to evidence of the subversion of the State Security Agency (SSA) to serve then-president Jacob Zuma’s political and personal needs.

Pretorius said the abuses of a decade ago still haunted the country, as evidenced by the violence and looting that ripped through KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July. 

He pointed to the arrest of Thulani Dlomo, Zuma’s former intelligence strongman, for fomenting the unrest, and of the discovery of arms caches at flashpoints, six months after the commission heard from acting director-general of intelligence Loyiso Jafta that firearms went missing from the SSA and troublingly were never fully recovered. 

Pretorius asked when Ramaphosa became aware of the abuses in the intelligence world, given that he had commissioned an investigation headed by former minister Sydney Mufamadi and completed in 2018.

“I may not be able to pinpoint the time and date … Precisely part of the reason that motivated me to bring the SSA into the presidency so that we can go much more into the depth of it, so Mr Pretorius it is something that is very firmly on my radar screen,” the president answered.

Pretorius persisted, asking if Ramaphosa knew why Jafta’s contract was not renewed after his testimony and two witnesses involved in investigating abuses at the SSA, were relieved of their duties.

“It is something that I would not know closely,” Ramaphosa replied, adding that Jafta’s removal was most likely not sinister but a case of regulations barring him from another acting stint.

Pretorius countered: “This is not an observation that accords with our view from our investigation.”

On Wednesday, evidence leader Vas Soni confronted Ramaphosa with former Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) Popo Molefe’s account of how, in desperation, he approached him and the rest of the ruling ANC’s top six leaders as he tried to turn around the entity while 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 (Ramaphosa), 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.

State capture commission chairman 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, Ramaphosa added.

“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 or the cabinet.’”

Molefe had mentioned that he filed reports to the 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 Minister 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 invested in who gets appointed to the executive or board positions in state-owned entities, as Ramaphosa had explained in testimony on cadre deployment, 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.

Evidence leader 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.

As with Brian Molefe’s secondment, Ramaphose skirted the issue of Dudu Myeni’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,” Ramaphosa said.