ANALYSIS: Transnet’s looters on the ropes – but criminal charges need to follow swiftly
Hawks boss Godfrey Lebeya told Parliament this week that the unit is investigating fraud, corruption and money laundering in a case involving the largest amount of stolen money in recent South African history. The amount in question is more than R38-billion, looted through state rail company Transnet. It is clear that the net is tightening on the Transnet executives under whose watch this plunder took place, with three senior employees placed on suspension on Wednesday. Yet Lebeya also said no suspects have yet been identified in the Transnet investigation – which is curious, given that three separate reports have fingered the same cast of characters.
What a difference 10 days can make. Ten days ago, Transnet CEO Siyabonga Gama still had the luxury of using Transnet’s official communication channels to defend himself against allegations of wrongdoing. On 5 August, Transnet issued a statement which described reports that McKinsey staff helped Gama write his MBA thesis as “untrue and disparaging”, “misleading and untrue”, and “malicious gossip”. Fast forward to 15 August, and the latest Transnet statement struck a slightly different tone – announcing the suspension of Gama, along with two other executives, on the grounds of “various acts of possible misconduct”. This “misconduct”, it explained, involved contraventions of the Constitution, the Public Finance Management Act, Transnet’s own tender processes, and a number of other trifling laws such as the Companies Act. It did not elaborate further on the “alleged transgressions”, beyond a specific note about Gama: “With regard to Mr Gama, there are allegations that he wrongfully obtained his MBA with the help of a service provider to Transnet,” it stated. So much for “malicious gossip”, although the idea that Gama got help from McKinsey to pass his MBA should arguably be a bit lower down everyone’s priority list than the R38-billion theft from the parastatal that happened under his watch as erstwhile chief executive of Transnet Freight Rail. Gama has been placed on “precautionary suspension” along with Chief Advanced Manufacturing Officer Thamsanqa Jiyane and Supply Chain Manager Lindiwe Mdletshe, and all three have until Monday 20 August to explain why they should not be suspended. It’s been a busy week for the Transnet board, with the Transnet AGM held on Wednesday and a meeting with Parliament’s select committee on public accounts (Scopa) scheduled for Friday. The man the board will have to answer to – Public Enterprise Minister Pravin Gordhan – meanwhile described Transnet’s recent performance to Parliament this week as “less than satisfactory”, pointing to interference with procurement as a specific problem. Though things seem to be finally moving when it comes to taking action against Transnet executives in the wake of the billion-rand locomotive scandal forensically dissected by amaBhungane, the fact remains that this action has been wildly overdue. Three separate and independent reports into the scandal – commissioned by Transnet itself and Treasury, undertaken by Werksmans Attorneys, Mncedisi Ndlovu & Sedumedi Attorneys and Fundudzi Forensic Investigators – reached overlapping conclusions several months ago: that rail contracts were awarded irregularly and the price of locomotives was inflated, and that specific Transnet executives were involved. The Werkmans report, commissioned by Transnet in 2017 at an estimated cost of R18-million, came to the unequivocal conclusion that disciplinary action should be taken against the individuals mentioned in the report and law enforcement agencies brought in to investigate. Yet Transnet’s response, in February 2018, was to take no action – because the report was “incomplete and inconclusive”. That happened before Gordhan was on hand to wield his State Capture scythe and get rid of the old Transnet board, with a new board led by Popo Molefe appointed in May. Gordhan would tell Parliament that he could not understand why the individuals named in the Werkmans report had not been “summarily dismissed”. Two of the individuals fingered in the report as “key architects” of the locomotive scandal, to quote amaBhungane, were the now-suspended Gama and Jiyane. The two subsequent independent reports into Transnet would come to the same conclusions – though the Mncedisi Ndlovu & Sedumedi (MNS) report went a step further. City Press reported in February 2018 that the MNS report recommended specifically that criminal charges be laid against former Transnet CEO Brian Molefe, his former chief financial officer Anoj Singh, board subcommittee chairperson Iqbal Sharma, and Gupta lieutenant Salim Essa. Molefe, the MNS report recommended further, should be personally pursued to recover some of the money lost. To sum up: four years and three independent reports since the locomotive heist was orchestrated, three of the implicated Transnet executives have now been provisionally suspended. But the man believed to have been at the heart of the looting, former CEO Molefe, has yet to face formal sanctions for his role – despite the recommendations of independent investigations to this effect. Reporting to Parliament on Wednesday on the Hawks investigation into Transnet, moreover, Hawks boss Godfrey Lebeya said that no suspects had yet been identified. While the suspension of Gama, Jiyane, and Mdletshe may give room for cautious optimism that the rehabilitation of Transnet is on track, the action represents only a portion of the remedies recommended. Suspensions also cost money, as the Freedom Front Plus determined this week from answers to parliamentary questions it sent to government departments. “Public officials who have been suspended with full pay are costing the state millions of rand every year as a large number of them still receive their full salary even though they have been suspended for more than six months – and in some cases for more than a year – while the cases against them drag on,” the party said in a statement. Transnet has provided the stage for the biggest heist in the State Capture saga. Suspensions may be a step in the right direction – but only if criminal charges quickly follow. DM