In 2017, when Popo Molefe and his board at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) were not getting oversight help from law enforcement agencies, or the transport minister or even the parliamentary Transport Oversight Committee, the board went to the office of National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete to force the ministers to do their job. However, to this day, Molefe said, his letter has never been answered.
Molefe revealed this at the resumption of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture on Monday 29 June. In March 2020, when evidence related to allegations of corruption and maladministration at the rail agency was first heard, Molefe was one of the first people to testify about the goings-on at the country’s rail agency.
The commission took a break in March following five days of testimony related to Prasa where several officials testified on allegations of corruption and maladministration. On the fifth day, the commission announced there would be a break from testimony while investigators completed their probe into Prasa. Then came the coronavirus lockdown.
On Monday 29 June when hearings resumed, Molefe spent much of his testimony talking about his relationships with former transport ministers Dipuo Peters and Joe Maswanganyi during his tenure as chairperson of the board between 2014 and 2017.
He claimed Peters wanted to remove his board after he informed her of issues between him and former Group CEO Lucky Montana, with whom he was often at loggerheads over contracts that were signed without the board’s knowledge.
He had asked the minister to intervene, but claimed she wanted to fire him and his board. Molefe told the commission that in 2015 he had turned to the ANC’s top six officials for help with fixing the entity. The top six at the time were Jacob Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, Baleka Mbete, Zweli Mhkize, Gwede Mantashe and Jessie Duarte.
On the first day of Prasa-related testimony in March, the Autopax acting CEO, Tiro Holele, said Zuma’s business associate and someone who indirectly did business with Prasa, Roy Moodley, walked through Prasa as if he had the influence to make big decisions at the agency.
Molefe said nothing came of his plea for help.
Zondo said he wanted to know who was informed of issues at the entity, and why these went ignored, as many appointments at state entities, including Prasa, were made with political involvement. Zondo added that when Zuma returns to the commission he will have to say what took place at Prasa.
Molefe told how he and his board were fired by Peters on 8 March 2017, during a parliamentary briefing by the Transport Department and Prasa on the service delivery of its subsidiary, Metrorail.
Molefe told Zondo he was not present at the meeting, but was informed via an email from Peters that he and the board had been fired. Molefe and his board instituted legal action over the firing – which Peters lost. Molefe and his board were reinstated in their positions. Then Peters herself was fired during a Cabinet reshuffle by then-president Zuma.
Since Molefe’s board, there have been six interim boards at the entity. Currently, it has no board as Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula appointed Bongisizwe Mpondo as administrator of the agency. But this decision is currently under legal review in the Western Cape High court as activist coalition #UniteBehind believes the correct legal process to appoint an administrator was not followed.
When Maswanganyi – a member of the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Transport – was appointed, Molefe said he sent a letter congratulating him and asked for a meeting.
But instead, Molefe said, “He gave us seven days to show why we should not be removed as a board for failure to perform. He has never met with us, but he wanted to fire us.”
Describing the new minister, Molefe said “[Maswanganyi] was not interested in the affairs of Prasa, his main concern was to get rid of the board.”
But by July 2017 the term of the board had ended and an interim board was put in its place, even though Molefe alleges the “Prasa Act doesn’t make provision for an interim board”.
Evidence leader advocate Vas Soni said, “they must have known that what they were doing was not in compliance with the law, but they’ve done so for five and a half years”.
Since Molefe’s board, there have been six interim boards at the entity. Currently, it has no board as Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula appointed Bongisizwe Mpondo as administrator of the agency. But this decision is currently under legal review in the Western Cape High court as activist coalition #UniteBehind believes the correct legal process to appoint an administrator was not followed. The coalition wants a board of control appointed immediately – something Mbalula had opened up applications for earlier in June.
But issues between Molefe and Maswanganyi were not the only focus of testimony.
“I don’t know how the president of the country and the deputy president of the country could allow this to continue,” said Zondo, who asked how Prasa’s issues could slip under the radar, even from the Treasury.
Molefe said he sent a letter via email and a physical copy to the then-Speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, asking for help as the board wanted a public inquiry into the affairs of the agency.
When Zondo asked what Molefe stated in the letter addressed to Mbete, he said it was threefold: first, to alert the speaker that Prasa did not have a group CEO and he had wanted the minister to account to the speaker about this issue.
Second was to update Parliament on the cases that the rail agency was involved in and third was to inform Mbete on disciplinary proceedings against employees. Molefe said this was “to give a status report and to say, these are the challenges, they require a deeper inquiry by Parliament and should be public”.
This letter was sent not only to Mbete, but to Parliament’s public accounts watchdog Scopa and its chair, Themba Godi; the transport oversight committee and its chair, Dikeledi Magadzi; and to the chief whips of these committees.
“Except for the chairperson of Scopa, it doesn’t seem anybody acknowledged it,” said Molefe. “The message in that silence is very clear: we don’t want you there.”
Zondo asked if they “were turning a blind eye to the corruption that was happening at Prasa”– the commission needed to establish exactly how things spun out of control at Prasa.
“Where was Parliament and the committees while this happened?” asked Zondo.
“If Parliament played its part, a lot of damage could have been prevented,” he said.
Prasa-related evidence will continue on Tuesday, with Molefe continuing his testimony. Martha Ngoye, Prasa head of Legal, Risk and Compliance, is expected to continue her testimony before the commission this week. DM
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