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23 May 2017 16:42 (South Africa)
Politics

Analysis: By axing Gama, Transnet fires first in the battle for the soul of parastatals

  • Andy Rice
    andy rice
    Andy Rice

    Andy Rice is a founding partner of Yellowwood Future Architects, a marketing strategy consultancy. In his other lives, he is the southern hemisphere's only supporter of Cambridge United Football Club, and was once upon a time the South African National Spoofing Champion. He has played football at Wembley and cricket at Lord's within the same weekend, but troubled the scorer on neither occasion. Things could only go up from here.

  • Politics
siyabonga gamma

It may be difficult to believe, but the man who looked anointed by the ANC to take over Transnet, Siyabonga Gama, has just been summarily dismissed. This may be a single event, but it could more easily be the shape of greater fights to come.

Transnet has upped the stakes by “summarily dismissing” Siyabonga Gama, the guy who gave an R18 million contract to Siphiwe Nyanda, who occasionally moonlights as South Africa’s minister of communications.

Gama was head of Transnet Freight Rail until Tuesday, when the transport parastatal announced it was letting him go.

On one level, that’s asking for some kind of retaliation. Of the legal kind, of course, where we get to see all sorts of nonsense sprouted in the name of politics. And that seems most likely. Gama’s lawyer, Themba Langa (who used to run the Land Bank), says the legal option “is something we will seize ourselves with (sic), it’s just about working out which route to take”. And there are plenty of options, depending on how they want to play this.

There’s the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration), the labour court and the high court. Normally, you’d expect someone who’s been sacked to take the quickest possible route (or the one that could get you the most cash). But this is different. This is about politics, and the power of the ANC’s deployment committee versus good corporate governance. So it’s possible Gama may decide to take the longest route, which would afford him more time, and more space for political manoeuvring.

So far, Gama’s strategy has been to delay things as long as possible in the hopes that something will change. The only thing that can change is the political balance of power and that’s what he’s waiting for. But by sacking him, Transnet has defined the playing field in its favour for this particular battle. This case will now be fought in court, but with Gama outside the company. It’s now up to him to overturn the finding of the disciplinary hearing and its sanction. So the onus is on him to prove wrong-doing on the part of Transnet. And when you consider that his main argument is that the person chairing the hearing, Mark Antrobus SC, may have been biased because he did other work for the company, well, you can smell the desperation.

Going to court would never have been Gama’s first option. Because that means everything that happens does so in the full glare of publicity. In other words, we’re actually going to see the fight for the soul of Transnet happen in public. The arguments against Gama will be made in public. And that will bring up his signing of a contract with Nyanda’s company. And any phone conversations the two may have had.

But what it will really do is drag the ongoing battle for the soul of South Africa’s parastatals into the open. It’s a battle being fought on several fronts at the same time. The real fight is over the resources that controlling these “dispensers of largesse” will confer on the people who run them. If you’re the CEO of Transnet, you get to make some companies rich and make others go broke. Many people in the ANC who know this fact intimately and these are the very same people with sway over the party’s deployment committee.

President Jacob Zuma himself is clearly caught between the rock of sorting all of this mess out, and the hard place of the fact that some of his strongest allies are the people who have the most to gain from deploying their own buddies to these jobs. He is unable to move, leading to headlines about a decision to drop a ministerial review one day, and a bald denial of that the next.

This puts public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan in an impossible position. Weekly there are now claims that her power is ebbing away, or even claims of a possible cabinet reshuffle. Don’t believe them, yet. It’s obvious that this is being put about by people trying to weaken her. And people who feel politically weak don’t tell Parliament that the boards of state-owned enterprises “must govern”.

But there is now clearly a calculated campaigned aimed at getting rid of those people who stand in the way of their millions. Think of the whispering campaign against Hogan, the threat to “discipline” Zwelinzima Vavi or the ANC’s reaction to Cosatu and the SACP generally at the moment. This isn’t about ideology. It’s about the fight for the soul of government, about whether our tax coffers are just going to be looted, or actually used for something good. And, yes, it’s closely related to Julius Malema’s campaign to “nationalise” the mines.

The real question, of course, is who is doing this? To answer that you need to tread carefully, because none of these people have been convicted of corruption, or even charged with it. But think of why a justice minister would publicly support Gama, or why a communications minister would get involved (what on earth was he doing running a security company anyway?). Or why a youth leader would push for a philosophy he clearly doesn’t understand. What’s in it for them? It has to be money. In their pockets. What else could it possibly be?

We know that Vavi and Hogan are ranged against them. So is the SACP. But that’s pretty much it at the moment. Zuma himself is clearly powerless to stop them. Even if he wanted to.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)

Read more: The Daily Maverick

Photo of Siyabonga Gama by M&G

  • Andy Rice
    andy rice
    Andy Rice

    Andy Rice is a founding partner of Yellowwood Future Architects, a marketing strategy consultancy. In his other lives, he is the southern hemisphere's only supporter of Cambridge United Football Club, and was once upon a time the South African National Spoofing Champion. He has played football at Wembley and cricket at Lord's within the same weekend, but troubled the scorer on neither occasion. Things could only go up from here.

  • Politics

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