‘Just like Babita, I was doing my job, now I am paying the price,’ says Prasa whistle-blower Martha Ngoye

‘Just like Babita, I was doing my job, now I am paying the price,’ says Prasa whistle-blower Martha Ngoye
Former Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa chief executive Lucky Montana. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Moeletsi Mabe) | Martha Ngoye. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake) | Former Prasa chairperson Popo Molefe. (Photo: Sharon Seretlo / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Prasa whistle-blower Martha Ngoye is fighting to clear her name after her illegal firing, reinstatement then suspension – and now a lawsuit launched against her by the country’s rail agency.

‘All I wanted was to clear my name – and so I will,” said Martha Ngoye, the suspended head of legal, risk and compliance at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), the country’s rail agency.

Having been ostracised by Prasa, she now faces investigation, mounting legal bills and the possibility of losing her job – all because she spoke up.

“Well, I’m at home, I’m on suspension,” said Ngoye during a recent visit to Cape Town where she met DM168 to discuss her job, whistle-blowing, her appearance before the State Capture Inquiry, and what could lie ahead for her.

Ngoye was born and raised in Soweto to parents who “sacrificed their finances to get me a good education”. After finishing high school she studied law and became an admitted attorney of the high court.

She worked in the private sector at firms such as Edward Nathan & Friedland before joining Standard Bank.

After working as a lawyer she decided to “do my bit for the country” and joined state-owned enterprises. She worked at Transnet for five years before moving to Prasa in 2011, where she held the position of CEO at subsidiary Intersite for nine months.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Prasa sues whistle-blower for R45m

In December 2014, she was asked by the Prasa board to assist in the legal department, to “put certain things in place”. She was appointed head of legal services, a position she still holds, albeit while she is suspended. “That’s where my worries start – being this group executive in charge of legal, risk and compliance,” she said.

The Zondo Commission

During the State Capture Inquiry between 2020 and 2021, Ngoye revealed before chairperson Judge Raymond Zondo that she had been forced to make protected disclosures about the goings-on at the agency. She identified herself as a whistle-blower in one appearance.

Ngoye testified that the Prasa legal team was kept off key contracts, including the ill-fated and corrupt Swifambo and Siyangena contracts, by then CEO Lucky Montana.

She also revealed to Zondo how she was fired by Montana after she had challenged him when he fired Fanie Dingiswayo, who reported to her. Montana reversed his decision, but Ngoye was placed on suspension.

She was appointed acting CEO in January 2015 when Montana went on leave. But when he returned, she told DM168, he came back with “paranoia” that she was after his job.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Prasa’s legacy of whistle-blower victimisation and corruption cover-ups is off the rails

She said she told him: “No, Mr Montana, with the greatest respect, I don’t want your position. I’ve got no inclination or interest to occupy this position.”

From this point Ngoye and Montana’s relationship broke down: “Lucky was not used to people questioning him… I guess he’s never come across a black woman who was so assertive and said things.”

Former Prasa CEO Lucky Montana. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Leon Sadiki)

After this, she was arrested by the Hawks on charges that are still unclear. Ngoye says she is innocent. “If I had taken money from Prasa, I would probably understand.”

‘Babita’s story is my story’

“I came forward and look where I am… I just did my job. I was just being a professional,” she said. “I didn’t go out there being a whistle-blower. I was just doing my job. The name ‘whistle-blower’ has befallen me. It is what it is. I guess I did blow the whistle about things that would have not been known at Prasa,” she said.

Ngoye said that when whistle-blower Babita Deokaran, a Gauteng health department official, was killed in August 2021, she felt she needed to do a tribute to her.

“Babita’s story is my story – a woman who was just doing her job. A single mother having a child at school; my daughter was at school doing matric. It’s a story close to my heart, but it could have been me. So when I think about Babita, I think about perhaps how fortunate I am to be alive,” she said.

That not much has been done around this case has been heartbreaking, Ngoye said.

“If there was any will to deal with the culprits who murdered Babita and everybody else who was involved, it would have happened by now – and the case is remanded… every time, and the family just has to sit through this,” she said.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Chief Justice calls for special commission to investigate Prasa’s implosion

When talking about her experience of blowing the whistle on corruption at Prasa, Ngoye said it was harrowing as she was ostracised and ridiculed. “But because I am a professional, they could never find me wanting as far as my work is concerned.

Murdered whistle-blower Babita Deokaran. (Photo: Facebook)

“I stopped things that were wrong. I was vocal: I was clear that I was not going to do things that were unlawful. I was not going to take unlawful instructions from anybody… There’s this problem that existed and therefore I had to be taken care of.”

Personal cost

GroundUp reported in February 2021 that Ngoye and two other officials had been fired by the Prasa board, when the agency claimed she and two other officials had overstayed their five-year contract.

The three individuals took their case to the Labour Court on the basis that the board was not quorate.

Ngoye and the two officials were then reinstated in March 2021 by order of the Johannesburg High Court. Prasa’s appeal application was dismissed.

Ngoye is now suspended from Prasa.

In another setback for Ngoye, GroundUp reported that Prasa was suing her for R45-million over a contract with SA Fence and Gate, a matter on which she had defended Prasa in a court battle.

These matters have all affected Ngoye – from mounting legal bills to the impact on her daughter.

“The harassment, the victimisation, everything that I have gone through. I look at my child and my heart breaks. She didn’t have to go through this… She’s my only child and it’s been hard for her. She worries about me and she shouldn’t [have to].”

Ngoye said her credit profile “has gone out of the window. I’ve got to pay psychologists. My health has taken a turn for the worse. My doctor told me that stress is going to kill me,” Ngoye said. “I’ve got legal bills coming out of my ears. I’m struggling to pay my lawyers. My life is at risk.”

What’s next?

Ngoye not only faces investigation by Prasa, but has also been recommended for investigation, along with other Prasa officials, in the State Capture report for her role on the agency’s bid adjudication committee.

“I have no qualms with that. I was never part of those committees and I want to be placed in those meetings where the appointment of this company was made. I’m happy for these investigations to continue.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Prasa on the hook at Scopa over 3,000 ‘ghost’ employees and many other disasters

“I’ve never taken a cent, I’ve never benefited at all, but I am persecuted. Why?”

She said the support from civil society, such as #UniteBehind and the Kathrada Foundation, “has helped sustain our sanity and that has helped us – and me – to carry on day to day…

“I’m just a professional who was doing their job in a state-owned enterprise with the understanding that I need to contribute my professionalism to my country – and this is the price I have to pay?” she said. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Chris 123 says:

    Are there any “empowerment” employees who aren’t tainted in one way or another. When will doing an honest days work for a salary be enough?

  • Jon Quirk says:

    The depths of corruption that the Zuma administration encouraged, allowed and supported, took corruption to a whole new level and cost our country upwards of a trillion rand; as such, the brave whistle-blowers at particularly tainted entities, such as Prasa, Transnet, Eskom, water utilities, KZN municipalities, SARS, Sanral, ….. the list sadly is endless, deserve and need our full support …..

    We must get our country back on to a sound, fair, open to all, non-favouritism basis …. where belonging to the ANC is not the only way to extraordinary wealth and where acting in the common good is the norm.

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