Suspension of Prasa CEO Zolani Matthews — an appointment permeated with an international legacy of scandal
He has been suspended because of a wealth of information that should have been known to the board before he was appointed.
Zolani Matthews was hired in March 2021 at the age of 64 to be the first Group CEO in nearly six years at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) despite having no rail experience. Just eight months later, he has been suspended by the board.
In a cryptically worded announcement on Friday 19 November, Prasa Chairperson Leonard Ramatlakane said that Matthews had been suspended for “an alleged sensitive matter of security breach and other contractual obligations”.
A second statement, issued the next day, provided more detail. Matthews had been suspended because the “Department of State Security” had declined to give him top-secret security clearance because of his “deliberate failure to disclose to Prasa that he holds a British citizenship”. According to this statement, the news “came as a shock to Prasa”.
David Mphelo is now Acting Group CEO. The Prasa board has asked “to be given space to deal with this matter without further issuance of further statements to the media”.
In March 2021, we reported that Matthews was appointed Prasa CEO in contravention of the rail agency’s policy that sets an age limit of 63.
But Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula and the Prasa Board issued statements insisting that “due process” had been followed.
Ramatlakane insisted that correct procedure was followed and called GroundUp’s reporting “at best ignorant and at worst malicious” in a statement on 5 March.
In an EWN report in March, board member Smanga Sethene insisted that “due process” was followed in the appointment of Matthews.
Mbalula is quoted saying the Prasa board was expected to follow all the required processes, including security clearance.
How Kgosie became Zolani
Matthews has held senior positions at a number of parastatals. He was chairperson of the Ports Regulator, an Icasa councillor, a senior manager at Armscor, and a director of the South African Post Office. His sister is Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor. His father, Joe Matthews, was Deputy Minister of Safety and Security. His grandfather was ANC icon ZK Matthews.
No previous vetting exercise appears to have made an issue of his British citizenship. But Prasa’s board says it is “shocked” to learn of it and considers it sufficient cause for suspension, with a view to terminating his contract.
GroundUp sent questions to state security asking how Matthews passed previous vetting exercises if this is now the issue.
Matthews’s dual citizenship has never been hidden. Perhaps the fact was obscured because Zolani Matthews has spent much of his life going as “Kgosie”, a shortening of his second name, Kgosietsile.
In a 2003 profile of the first black woman US Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who had announced a presidential bid, Gary Younge of The Guardian refers to Zolani Matthews as “Kgosie Matthews, a British citizen of African descent”.
In a 2003 article from Roll Call, he is referred to as “a naturalised British citizen who was born in South Africa.”
Years with Senator Moseley Braun
In April 2021 the Sunday Independent published a story that was dismissive about “smallanyana” skeletons in Matthews’s closet. These primarily relate to his life in the US.
In the late 1980s, Matthews worked with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, after meeting at an anti-apartheid rally. In 1988, Jackson launched a presidential bid and hired Matthews. Depending on the source, Matthews worked as “Jesse’s valet”, “a cross between valet and road manager, packing Jackson’s suitcases and making sure things went according to schedule”, “his advance guy, and part of his job was to say no to all of the people who thought they were hot stuff and wanted to be around Jesse”, or, as described in the Sunday Independent, his “road manager”. A Matthews-provided CV refers to his role as “special assistant”.
Political consultant Jerry Austin, described as the person closest to Matthews, told GroundUp: “His role in the Jackson campaign was like a valet. We call it body man. … He was not the campaign manager for Jackson. I was.”
This campaign connected Matthews with many players in the Democratic Party’s political machine.
Matthews met Moseley Braun in the late 1980s, and reconnected at a dinner in December 1991.
According to a profile on Matthews from July 1992, before this meeting, Moseley Braun “was considering quitting, had practically no money, no staff, no media exposure and, experts said, little hope of winning. Matthews persuaded her to stay in.”
She appointed Matthews as her campaign manager. At some point afterwards, Matthews and Moseley Braun became romantically involved.
Moseley Braun credits Matthews with getting her elected against tremendous odds: she took on a sitting Democratic senator in a March 1992 primary election, and then swept to victory in the Senate election later that year.
But others involved in the campaign did not have as high regard for Matthews. A 2015 book about Moseley Braun, Behind the Smile, by the late journalist Jeannie Morris, who had worked on the 1992 campaign, devotes considerable space to Matthews; little of it is kind. Contemporaneous news reports also paint an ugly picture.
Moseley Braun brought in a number of experienced political consultants, including Jesse Jackson’s campaign manager Jerry Austin. He told GroundUp that Matthews was “a very abrasive personality. His power in the campaign was limited. I was the overall consultant besides creating the media. His major role was being with the candidate — making sure she arrived on time for events. Especially, when it became clear they were a couple.”
David Axelrod, chief strategist for the Barack Obama Senate and presidential campaigns, was an adviser to Carol Moseley Braun towards the end of her 1992 campaign. His memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, recollected that Moseley Braun and Matthews were “more eager to plunder the campaign than to win the election … With the emotionally abusive Matthews in her ear, offering colossally bad advice, she would spend much of her short tenure in Washington mired in controversy.”
And there were many controversies.
After she had been elected, Moseley Braun’s campaign was in serious debt. Funds had dried up. Several staff reported that they hadn’t been paid and claims were made that campaign funds had been used for Moseley Braun and Matthews’s personal benefit.
This atmosphere prompted the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to investigate Moseley Braun’s campaign. By 1996, her campaign owed over $500,000. A report at the time said that an electrical power surge in the campaign office fried the campaign computer’s main disk drive and destroyed its lists of donors and vendors.
The Chicago Tribune would report in 1997 that the Internal Revenue Service was launching a criminal investigation into Matthews, looking at whether any campaign funds were improperly used for personal reasons and whether income taxes were paid.
Writing in 1998, Mike Robinson, a reporter for the Associated Press wrote that the FEC investigation of the fund “ended inconclusively”. But that “the Internal Revenue Service had requested a grand jury investigation of both Moseley-Braun and her campaign manager Kgosie Matthews involving personal use of $281,000.”
In November 1998, Eric Slater in the LA Times wrote that, “The Federal Election Commission found that 138 contributors to her 1992 campaign exceeded the $1,000 limit, and about $249,000 in campaign expenditures could not be accounted for.”
Jerry Austin told GroundUp that the allegations of misuse of campaign funds were “never proven but suspected. He and Braun moved into an expensive lakefront condo after the election.”
Immediately after Moseley Braun’s senate election victory, she and Matthews left the country for a month-long holiday tour of Africa. This came as a surprise to staffers, who had expected her to remain in the US and prepare for her new role. Key staffers, like press secretary David Eichenbaum, quit.
On her return she faced a succession of scandals, including a report with allegations that Matthews sexually harassed staff, a friends-for-jobs scandal, and claims of misuse of campaign funding. She and Matthews also faced criticism for moving into a very expensive lakefront apartment secured at “below-market” rates. Without a press secretary or chief of staff, there was nobody in the US to deal with the scandals.
But she had good news to share too; she and Matthews were engaged.
By this time Matthews was employed as a lobbyist for the Washington Strategic Consulting group. Among his clients was Nigerian military dictator Sani Abacha.
In 1996 Matthews and Moseley Braun visited Nigeria together. This would be Moseley Braun’s third trip. According to her answers before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 6 November 1999, “the Senator travelled to Nigeria in December, 1992; July, 1995; and August, 1996… Senator Moseley-Braun met with Sani Abacha during all three trips.”
Abacha was a general who seized power in November 1993, months after the military had annulled the results of a democratic election won by Moshood Abiola. (Abiola would be imprisoned by Abacha in 1994 and his wife murdered in 1996 after she called for his release).
Abacha is infamous for running one of the century’s most corrupt regimes. Political opponents were imprisoned, assassinated or executed. The most notable victim of Abacha’s regime was anti-oil activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged the year before Moseley Braun’s trip, to widespread outrage. In 2009, oil giant Shell paid over $15-million in a lawsuit that alleged its complicity in Saro-Wiwa’s execution.
In 1995, after Saro-Wiwa’s execution, Nelson Mandela described the Abacha regime as an “illegitimate, barbaric, arrogant, military dictatorship which has murdered activists, using a kangaroo court and using false evidence”, and he called for sanctions.
In this climate, Moseley Braun visited General Abacha on the trip, not sanctioned by the US State Department. Moseley defended her trip, calling it a private visit motivated by her “personal friendship with Abacha’s wife” and she had “wanted to console her after the recent death of her son.” Moseley Braun said that US policy towards the Abacha regime was not “fair or evenhanded”.
By the end of 1995, the firm had received nearly $5-million for their resolute defence of Abacha.
While Matthews left the US firm in 1994 and returned to South Africa, it was believed that he continued to work on behalf of the regime subsequently, which had led to the 1996 visit.
At the time, the trip was met with widespread condemnation, with Matthew’s former boss, the Reverend Jackson leading the criticism, saying that, “It is unfortunate that the senator’s trip gives the impression of lending legitimacy to an illegitimate regime in Nigeria.”
Moseley Braun’s Chief of Staff quit due to her decision to visit Nigeria.
Later, in written answers, Moseley Braun would claim that she was “unaware of whether … Mr Matthews ‘directly or indirectly received any money or anything of monetary value’ from the Nigerian government.”
Moseley Braun also later denied supporting the Abacha regime, although this claim was strongly contested by Dr Owens Wiwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s brother.
Braun’s trips to Nigeria would cause her and Matthews further problems.
Matthews and Moseley Braun entangled each other in scandal. Between December 1993 and August 1995 Matthews used a travel agent, Antoine Kacem, to buy 60 plane tickets on an account that Matthews failed to settle. Kacem specialised in travel from the US to Africa, particularly for well-heeled clients.
The travel arrangements were for Moseley Braun and a large entourage and had been booked in Matthews’s name. The trips were to a number of African dictatorships.
After Kacem sued Matthews, Judge Jose Lopez ordered Matthews to pay the travel agent $250,000 for the plane tickets, as well as legal fees and interest. But Matthews was no longer in the country.
Moseley Braun did however have to answer interrogatory questions in writing. She said while she did still speak to him, she did not have a phone number for Matthews as she would always be called by him.
GroundUp could not reach Kacem, however, we did speak to people with direct knowledge of the case. They remembered this case for its consequences for Moseley Braun.
We were told that the judgment against Matthews would have expired in 2010, and while our source could not recollect if Matthews settled the debt according to the judgment, they were “pretty sure Kacem didn’t get his $250,000”.
Sexual harassment allegations
Shortly before the elections, sexual harassment allegations were brought against Matthews. There were no direct complainants — women working on Moseley Braun’s campaign spoke to Chicago reporters on condition of anonymity, citing fear that their careers would be affected.
Moseley Braun commissioned an investigation that cleared Matthews. No women named themselves as victims of Matthews. But political opponents continued to refer to the allegations when campaigning against Braun.
The details of the harassment allegations are lengthy and unclear. Interested readers can make up their own minds by reading the Sunday Independent article, this article in Time magazine and chapter 15 of Behind the Smile, particularly Liz Nicholson’s description of her experience.
Mired in scandal
The procession of scandals, many of which Matthews had a hand in, meant Moseley Braun’s reputation suffered a precipitous decline. By 1997, The Economist, in a review of her performance before a re-election campaign in 1998, had dubbed her “Calamity Carol”.
In 1998, she lost her Senate seat to the arch-conservative Peter Fitzgerald, the first Republican to win a Senate seat in Illinois for two decades. Moseley Braun’s political career has not recovered.
In 2004 the Democrats rewon the seat with the largest margin of victory for a Senate candidate in Illinois history. Their candidate was Barack Obama.
Role as Prasa CEO
It is not clear what led to Matthews being chosen as CEO of Prasa. And he has been in the job for too short a time to fully evaluate his performance.
The decision to appoint a permanent CEO after years of instability, much of it caused by Mbalula’s predecessors, was undoubtedly correct, but at no point were we given insight into why exactly Matthews was chosen over someone with experience in running a rail company.
Many of the problems facing Prasa predate his appointment. Other problems, such as the relocation of the people occupying land on top of rail lines in Langa, are outside the bounds of his powers and require the whole of government, and an effective minister, to solve.
Using Matthews’s dual-citizenship as the reason for his suspension is obviously dubious in the technical sense.
Accountability Now’s Director Paul Hoffman claimed that Matthews was suspended because of his attempts to clean up the rail agency. This reasoning does not hold much water. If this were the case, why did Matthews doggedly pursue the firing of Prasa’s most accomplished corruption buster, Martha Ngoye?
More likely, it is that Prasa’s continued failure is reflecting poorly on Mbalula. A sacking is the simplest way to be seen to be doing something.
The unions are divided on Matthews, and his suspension as CEO of Prasa.
Sonja Cartsens, spokesperson for majority union Untu, told GroundUp that they only learned about the suspension in the media, instead of from the Board.
“We are very concerned and believe [it] … could not have come at a worse time,” said Carstens. “Prasa is finally stabilised thanks to Mr Matthews, and skilled individuals who have worked in Prasa for years, but have been overlooked numerous times in the past, are acting in management positions and being allowed to fix what has gone wrong.
“We are on the verge of opening the Mabopane Corridor, a passenger route that is vital to the economies of Gauteng and North West. In fact, Mr Matthews invited the leadership of Untu to accompany him on this route on 26 November 2021. For our members, there was light at the end of a very dark tunnel, a positive progress. But all of this will most likely be left hanging in the air with his suspension.”
But Metrorail in cities across the country continues to be dysfunctional.
Meanwhile, minority union Satawu issued a statement on 19 November welcoming the suspension, despite admitting not knowing the details that led to the board’s decision.
GroundUp could find no way to contact Matthews.
Prasa spokesperson Andiswa Makanda told GroundUp: “I will ask him to contact you, but he is not engaging with the media.”
We have received no response, but would welcome any reply. We also asked for comments from Minister Mbalula, the State Security Agency, Icasa, Ports Regulator, the Post Office, and Armscor. We received no responses. DM
First published by GroundUp.
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