A year of damning revelations at Zondo Commission into State Capture
Tender rigging, political interference and bullying in procurement and investigative functions, hostile capture of state departments, and abuse of power by the top echelons in government. This sums up the evidence that has come before chairperson Raymond Zondo over the course of this year.
The commission heard the testimony of former Bosasa chief operating officer Angelo Agrizzi.
His explosive testimony of bribes allegedly given to senior politicians to help keep the company afloat on irregular government contracts piqued the interest of many South Africans.
It also gave rise to pressure for the Hawks to act on the company, which they did, albeit 10 years too late. The result was several arrests on charges ranging from money laundering as exposed by Agrizzi, who was among those charged, to corruption. While the parallel criminal case process continues, however, the man placed at the centre of Agrizzi’s powerful testimony, former chief executive Gavin Watson, will no longer have an opportunity to give his version as he perished in a gruesome car accident in August.
Agrizzi told of “monopoly money” distributed by Watson as part of an elaborate bribery scheme that saw up to R6million being paid to politicians and government officials every month. Among them were Nomvula Mokonyane, Gwede Mantashe and former president Jacob Zuma, whose bribe was disguised as a donation of R300000 to his foundation, Agrizzi said.
Then the commission went on to Eskom, the first of the state-owned entities to be explored.
Of great interest was the apparent privilege enjoyed by the Gupta family in the energy-generation drive, after the arrival of former group chief executive Brian Molefe in 2015. Molefe had come to Eskom from Transnet.
From the testimony of former mineral resources director-general Thibedi Ramontja, Judge Zondo heard of the side lining of senior staff once Mosebenzi Zwane became minister.
Ramontja claimed he centralised all matters relating to the Optimum coal mine, which was in the Guptas’ sights at the time, to his office. Zwane’s predecessor Ngoako Ramatlhodi testified that he believed Zuma removed him for refusing to buckle under pressure from the Guptas on mining rights.
Former Optimum chief executive Clinton Ephron told how Zwane went on to bully owners Glencore into selling Optimum to Gupta-owned Tegeta Minerals, backed by Oakbay Investments, in December 2015.
Oakbay turned out to not have the money for the purchase, according to the mine’s business rescue practitioner Piers Marsden, but a windfall from a pre-payment to Tegeta for a separate coal-supply agreement saved the day in April 2016. It was organised through an irregular coal contract with Eskom.
Transnet’s fate under Molefe, before he moved to Eskom, appeared to be characterised by the same bias towards Gupta-linked companies like Regiments and Trillian. The parastatal’s ambitious procurement project for 1064 locomotives in 2014 saw an estimated cost of R38 billion inexplicably escalate to R54bn, with motivation from Molefe. An investigation by law firm Mncedisi Ndlovu Sedumedi, commissioned by a later board in 2018, found that the escalation was irregular as it did not seek the required permission from the minister. Within months of Transnet securing the winning bids, Gupta-linked Regiments had earned a cool R265m for work not done, having edged its way into the winning consulting consortium facilitating the cost negotiations with bidders.
SAA’s evidence told of the interference of the Dudu Myeni-led board in a 2015 procurement process for a R14bn loan, with the help of a conflicted “fixer”, Masotsha Mngadi, who doubled as adviser to Myeni while also linked to the service provider appointed to source the funds.
One of the most compelling testimonies of this year has to be that of former ambassador to the Netherlands, Bruce Koloane, who appeared under subpoena in July. Initially defensive of his 2013 approval of the Waterkloof Air Force Base landing of a private plane with guests of the Gupta family from India on board, Koloane confessed to abusing his position as chief of state protocol, instructing army officials to expedite clearance for the landing.
His confession, however, only came after he was presented with audio recordings of his conversations with the officials in question, where he instructs the expedition of the clearance and later follows up. Koloane admitted to name dropping, using Zuma to prompt a speedy response in order to impress then Indian high commissioner, Anil Kumar Gupta.
After six years of denials from Koloane, he told the commission: “I would like to admit that I did what has now become popularly known as name dropping, merely to push officials who were supposed to process the flight clearance to do their job.”
He resigned in September after being recalled by Department of International Relations and Co-operation Minister Naledi Pandor.
Using Koloane’s confession to help bolster his argument of a conspiracy against him, Zuma defended his relationship with the Guptas when given the opportunity to make an opening statement prior to his questioning in July. Like Koloane, said Zuma, many people use his name in vain, sometimes to vilify the Guptas, to whom he feels indebted for their loyalty and support to his family. Zuma went on to outline what he called a long-standing campaign against him within the ANC, by detractors whose only objective is to discredit and destroy him using processes like the commission itself.
There turned out to be little in the line of evidence and plenty of objections to procedure from his lawyers, who eventually pulled out citing unfair questioning. Before that, though, Zuma reiterated his position that he had not been directly implicated by any witnesses. Zondo’s team brokered an agreement with Zuma’s lawyers for his later return, and despite the dates for two more week-long appearances being made public, the former president was a no-show for either.
Vrede dairy farm
When the commission regrouped it was to hear evidence related to the Vrede dairy farm project in the Free State. Over a few months, evidence would be heard of how a legitimate-sounding concept of government initiating a community-based project to help uplift small-scale farmers from the nearby township of Thembelihle, was run down by greed and corruption. The provincial department of agriculture led the project, with Zwane as MEC. So committed was Zwane to the project, said witness and former opposition councillor Albert Radebe, that he led the lobbying for the Phumelela Municipality to make land available for the farm.
When the land was secured, Indian dairy company Paras - brought in as partners by department head Peter Thabethe - started procuring equipment. For Paras to engage in business with a government entity, it needed a South African partner, and so Gupta-linked Estina entered the picture as implementing agents. The company had only R16 in its business account when a prepayment of R30m was approved by Thabethe in 2012.
He admitted that a sufficient due diligence was never done on the company. In the initial project proposal, it was claimed that Estina would invest R228m, but this never happened.
One of the potential beneficiaries, small-scale farmer Ephraim Dhlamini told the commission of the lack of support from the department and the losses his community incurred. When the project was investigated by Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane even more disappointment followed, said Dhlamini, as she failed to focus on him and fellow farmers.
Duduzane Zuma and Hlongwane
In his testimony last year, former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas claimed Duduzane Zuma and Hlongwane were present in a 2015 meeting at the Guptas’ Johannesburg residence when Ajay Gupta allegedly tried to bribe him.
Both the latter men rejected the claim, corroborating each other’s versions that a meeting did occur, but Ajay was not in it, and its contents differed greatly from what Jonas claimed.
It was instead a meeting of just the three of them to help iron out personal issues between Jonas and Hlongwane, but this was not achieved, said Hlongwane.
Intelligence investigation into Guptas
Former head of foreign intelligence Mo Shaik along with former colleagues Gibson Njenje and Jeff Maqetuka appeared in the last week of November to reveal how in 2011 a probe into the dealings of the Gupta family was halted by then state security minister Siyabonga Cwele, before being canned by then president Jacob Zuma.
Had this not happened, said Shaik, the controversial business family would probably not have enjoyed the level of access to state functionaries and their departments, that many witnesses have attested to.
Valencia Talane writes for Corruption Watch.