South Africa

Parliamentary Notebook: Ben Martins’ ‘tea party’ meeting with ‘Indian family’, and the ‘powder puff’ Steinhoff hearings

By Marianne Merten 1 February 2018

Lawyers were having a field day in Parliament amid State Capture inquiries and ahead of Wednesday’s briefing on the Steinhoff debacle. It’s a thing now. And so Public Enterprises Deputy Minister Ben Martins, under the beady legal eye of his senior silk, reminded MPs on Wednesday of his right to procedural and administrative justice, while stating that there was “nothing untoward” in facilitating a meeting between Rajesh (widely known as Tony) Gupta and Prasa CEO Lucky Montana while the tender to upgrade trains was not yet concluded. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

I saw nothing untoward in arranging this meeting between Mr Tony Gupta and Mr Lucky Montana as its aim was to clarify and give answers to the questions that Mr Gupta had posed to me,” read the statement to MPs by Public Enterprises Deputy Minister and former Transport Minister Ben Martins.

Those questions were around the 2012 tender for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) rolling stock renewal project. Interest was expressed, as was an intention to take the tender to court on review amid claims that it was not properly published and given notice of.

I did not at any stage ask Mr Montana to unduly, irregularly or illegally assist Mr Gupta. There was no unlawful and/or malicious intent on my part in facilitating the meeting.”

So that meeting in September 2012 at the minister’s private official Pretoria residence, not the office, was okay? In Martins’ view it was; his duties as transport minister included meeting and interacting with interested parties informally and formally, he told MPs.

“… (I)n 2012, the context and public image of members of the Gupta family was not what it is today in 2018; namely a family perceived and projected as the personification of corruption incarnate… All I knew then was that they were an Indian family originally from India, who owned a medium-sized BEE (black economic empowerment) company of moderate means named Sahara. And that they were trying to expand their business interests beyond the confines of the computer market into other business sectors.”

So it was about perceptions? Yes, according to Martins, who, when asked whether he believed in State Capture, replied: “It depends what you mean by State Capture. In Eskom there have been lapses in corporate governance and there are individuals that are being brought to book.”

On Wednesday Eskom announced the suspension of its Chief Information Office Sean Maritz. Following the power utility’s board changes in late December 2017, Anoj Singh resigned as Chief Financial Officer as did Eskom Group Capital Executive Prish Govender, while top executive for generation Matshela Koko has taken the power utility to the Labour Court over its demand that he resign.

There was little or no dispute of the facts of the meeting as Montana recounted to MPs on Tuesday. But the deputy minister did seem to tie himself into some verbal knots as to why at an official meeting at his official private ministerial Pretoria residence there were no officials present, nor minutes taken.

And no, Martins did not think to tell President Jacob Zuma that Zuma’s son Duduzane also showed up at that meeting with Tony Gupta. “I saw nothing untoward in Duduzane Zuma accompanying him and I did not see any need to raise it with the president,” the deputy minister, who acknowledged he knew Zuma as a Gupta business associate, told EFF MP Marshall Dlamini.

But MPs’ collective eyebrows shot up on Martins’ statement as to how in May 2013 he declined a request by Tony Gupta to land their wedding guests at OR International Airport for a welcoming ceremony. Instead he had suggested Pilanesberg airport as there were such facilities and options like game drives available.

On a narrow legalistic version Martins is correct to insist he did nothing wrong; he did not expressly say go to Pilanesberg airport to contravene immigration controls. But, as DA MP Natasha Mazzone pointed out, Martins also did not pick up the phone to his home affairs colleagues, the police, or the Hawks, to alert them about the wishes to have wedding guests get into the country without complying with South African laws.

It is on public record that the planeload of guests to the Gupta wedding party in April 2013 landed at the military Waterkloof Air Force base where they were welcomed and proceeded with traffic police and other official transport to Sun City for the celebrations. Home Affairs subsequently went to the luxury resort to do the necessary stamping of passports there amid a public outcry.

Bruce Koloane, the chief protocol officer who took the fall for allowing the landing (it was officially argued that permission was granted because some of the passengers were officials invited by Free State Agriculture MEC Mosebenzi Zwane, now Mineral Resources Minister, who is under scrutiny for his role in the Optimum mine acquisition by the Gupta-linked Tegeta and Eskom’s pre-payment for its coal delivery), was suspended by the International Relations Department, and in late 2014 appointed as South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands.

When asked about the Waterkloof landing of Gupta wedding guests, Martins said he was not responsible for a military airport: “This is not the remit of the authority of the department of transport”. By 9 June 2013 Martins lost his Cabinet post when he was reshuffled to serve as deputy energy minister.

There were a few heated moments when MPs interrupted meandering replies by Martins, who insisted on his right to reply. It’s part of his narrative: the inquiry has denied him his right to administrative and procedural fairness, particularly because he could not cross-examine other witnesses such as Eskom’s Company Secretary Suzanne Daniels, who had put him at a meeting with the Guptas and business associates in her testimony to the parliamentary inquiry last year.

On Wednesday Martins delivered the names of people, including ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) members, who would attest to him being at the party’s lekgotla, and not at what he previously called “a tea party” with the Guptas.

If there is anyone who has proof of me having been party to corruption, or of me having been party to the commission of crime, they have a moral and civil duty to report me to the police or any other relevant law enforcement authority,” Martins told MPs. “A fundamental principle of South African law is that everyone is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The spirit and letter of that principle is not that an individual is assumed guilty until he or she can prove themselves innocent. Another fundamental principle in our law is that: he or she who alleges must prove.”

Inquiry chairperson ANC MP Zukiswa Rantho said the inquiry was “not a court of law”, but a process in which MPs agreed to hear from everyone who could provide information while giving those implicated the opportunity to have their say.

Meanwhile, across the parliamentary precinct MPs from the committees of finance, public service and administration and the public spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), met over the Steinhoff debacle, the so-called “accounting irregularities” which destroyed the international company’s share value in December 2017 in South Africa and globally.

Parliament’s lawyers had been in touch with other lawyers representing Steinhoff “on the legal parameters of their participation in the briefing”, according to a joint statement earlier this week by the three committee chairpersons: Yunus Carrim (finance), Themba Godi (Scopa) and Cassel Mathale (public service and administration).

Former Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste has resigned – he now faces criminal investigations – and therefore, according to lawyers, had nothing to say. South African businessman Christo Wiese, who resigned as Steinhoff board chair in December 2017, came to interact with MPs. Bottom line? He knew nothing until three days before the release of the damning financials.

DA MP David Maynier was unhappy. The day’s proceedings had turned into “powder puff hearings” which failed to subject Steinhoff to scrutiny, he said in a statement:

We have to be tough on crime in the private sector, and tough on crime in the public sector, and will not allow Steinhoff International Holdings N.V. off the hook in Parliament.”

One thing that did emerge at Wednesday’s joint committee meeting for what was officially described as “an initial briefing” is a sense of lack of urgency by regulators, particularly the Financial Services Board which falls under National Treasury, and those who invested money in Steinhoff, including the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF) and the government-owned Public Investment Co-operation (PIC), which oversees assets of R1.9-trillion, including government workers’ pension and savings.

Or as Carrim put it: “More should be done quicker.” As legislators put in place the necessary laws for regulators to act, there could be no criticism of parliamentarians that it was not their place to investigate.

If you are not doing your job, not seen to be doing your job, the MPs have a role,” said Karim.

And so will lawyers, also outside of Parliament. Following Montana’s testimony to the Eskom State Capture inquiry about the former ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize asking for kickbacks on a railways tender, the EFF announced on Wednesday that it would lay charges against Mkhize at the Hillbrow police station in Johannesburg. DM

Photo: Public Enterprises Deputy Minister Ben Martins at the State Capture inquiry on Wednesday, 31 January 2018, Cape Town. (a screen grab from the SABC streaming video)



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