Opinionista Xolisa Phillip 12 July 2019

Appointments to SOEs show that a new elite displaced an old elite at Nasrec

We are counting the cost of and paying for the sins of the 2007 Polokwane consensus, but are in danger of repeating the same mistakes. This is apparent in the insistence to keep the process to appoint board members to SOEs and key state agencies shrouded in secrecy. 

It is not a fact in dispute that state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and other government agencies were the primary playground where untold plundering and institutional damage took hold. The ongoing Zondo commission and the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) inquiry, among others, bear testament to this.

So, it was curious to see a media statement on Wednesday announcing an interim board of the PIC. It reminded one of an AGM in the latter half of 2018, at which Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan gave a keynote address. During a question-and-answer session, a businesswoman took the mic and asked Gordhan why it was that the same names and faces were in circulation for appointments to SOE boards and other government agencies.

For context, this was the time when Ramaphoria was at its height and the clean-up of SOEs was the new wave. It was during this time that Eskom, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and Transnet all got new boards. The new dawn was gathering momentum and there was a sense of renewed optimism filling the air. The overriding sentiment was that, finally, the government was getting to grips with the governance challenges facing the country.

Back to the AGM, Gordhan’s response to the businesswoman was that there were no gatekeepers and anyone could apply to sit on SOE boards. He went further to state that often times when people posed that question, it had more to do with their self-interest than a genuine desire to serve. Put another way, people who posed that question were often asking for themselves, wondering why they were not among the chosen few – or something to that effect.

The businesswoman’s question remains relevant and pertinent in light of recent developments and what unfolded in the immediate aftermath of the appointment of the new Eskom board.

In April 2018, Mark Lamberti resigned from the power utility’s board. Six months later, in October 2018, George Sebulela followed suit because of a conflict of interest. And, a year later, Phakamani Hadebe resigned as CEO.

This is the same holding pattern at other SOEs. In Prasa’s case, it is on its sixth CEO in three years; while at Transet its acting CEO left six months into the job and its CFO is now in the hot seat. Something is amiss.     

It is no secret that the favoured modus operandi of state captors was to appoint amenable boards that would bend to the will of whoever wielded political power. It, therefore, stands to reason that there would be heightened vigilance about the individuals who are appointed to the boards of SOEs and other state agencies.

Indeed, the slogan that gave meaning and impetus to the 2007 Polokwane consensus was that, “It is our turn to eat.” And what happened in the years which followed shows that the Polokwane consensus remained true to its words. This manifested in wholesale plundering and the destabilisation of key institutions. But we know not what underpins the Nasrec consensus and the impulse which drives it. There are, of course, hints through the use of political catchphrases such as Thuma Mina and new dawn. However, there is no fully formed picture that dispels all doubt about that for which the Nasrec consensus stands.

And it is for this reason that the initial optimism about the new wave of appointments to SOEs is being steadily replaced by discomfort that, perhaps, one elite has displaced another in the aftermath of Nasrec. And if the body politic does not keep a watching brief on these matters, we are at risk of repeating the costly mistakes of the immediate past.

Take the furore over the interim PIC board. It is warranted and it is healthy for democracy and public engagement that the body politic ask political principals probing and uncomfortable questions. Admittedly, there will be opportunistic elements whose sole aim is to drown out the voices of reason which are asking legitimate questions.

In this crucial phase of rebuilding institutions and public trust, the current establishment can ill-afford a crisis of legitimacy of its own making. It would be well advised not to repeat the mistakes of its predecessor who underestimated the public’s will to act against a political establishment that was out of touch with issues on the ground.

One of the ways in which it can begin to claw back the ground it is losing, is by being transparent about the processes followed to make board appointments to SOEs and incorporate a public participation component. In the absence of this, the veil of secrecy that shrouds how board appointments are made will continue to be a source of public outcry.

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