Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown File picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi

Parliament - Public Enterprises Minister, Lynne Brown, on Wednesday, denied that she received a phone call from President Jacob Zuma in 2015, instructing her to suspend three Eskom executives, contradicting the explosive evidence of a former company board chair.

"I said no, Advocate [Ntuthuzelo] Vanara," Brown replied wearily when the evidence leader in the parliamentary inquiry into Eskom questioned her about the alleged instruction, said to have emanated from a meeting including Zuma and former South African Airways chairperson Dudu Myeni.

"In fact, I don't know the conversation. Why don't you ask the president?"

Brown was grilled by Vanara about former Eskom board chairman Zola Tsotsi's claim that he had a meeting with Myeni, who had told him to suspend three executives and establish a fact-finding inquiry into Eskom in early 2015. 

Tsotsi said the meeting took place at Zuma's Durban residence, telling Members of Parliament (MPs) that the president then came into the room and asked Tsotsi if he knew which executives were meant to be suspended.

He said shortly after the meeting, Brown had approved the suspension of the executives - Tshediso Matona, Matshela Koko and Dan Marokane - as well as finance director Tsholofele Molefe.

Brown on Wednesday, appeared before the committee directly after Tsotsi, and immediately challenged his testimony. She was shocked that he failed to tell her that he had met with Zuma, she said. 

Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan asked why she had not raised this oversight with the president, to which Brown replied: "I have not spoken to the president today. Mr Tsotsi told that story today."

She said the suspensions were the decision of the board, and she did not take a particular position on it, though in hindsight she regretted that in the case of Matona, Molefe and Marokane, talented young people lost their jobs though they were not guilty of any transgression.

She said in late 2014, when the suspensions happened and the Dentons report was commissioned, Eskom was implementing stage 3 load-shedding and found itself in such financial dire straits that her priority was instituting an investigation to establish the cause.

Gordhan asked whether she also regretted that the suspension of the executives prompted Standard and Poor's to downgrade Eskom. Brown contested that this had been the cause, visibly irritating Gordhan who said her stock response to a wealth of testimony on illicit dealings between state-owned enterprises and the Gupta family's business empire was denial.

"It seems what we are confronted with is denial, denial, denial."

Tsotsi had also told MPs that he encountered Tony Gupta and Salim Essa, a known associate and business facilitator for the Indian family, at Brown's home shortly after new Eskom board members were appointed in 2014. He said the meeting discussed the allocation of sub committee duties to board members.

"What actually had been happening prior to me going there was that Salim Essa would draw up his idea of a board allocation and ask me to pass it on to the minister," said Tsotsi.

"What happened is I got a list [from Essa] and I would change the list on the basis of what I thought it should be. She [Brown] changed the list back...let me say my hands were tied."

Brown said Essa and Tony Gupta had never been to her home, adding: "At this point it is my word against theirs."

Economic Freedom Fighters Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu commented that the contradictions meant one of the day's two witnesses were lying under oath.

"It looks like we are going to have situation where one of the two used the Lord's name in vain," Shivambu said.

Brown began her testimony by reading a statement in which she said lawyers had cautioned her not to appear before the inquiry because the process was "unfair, inappropriately accusatorial and that my appearance would only serve to legitimise a predetermined interim report containing a rehash of untested information".

It seemed intent on a reaching a conclusion designed to compromise particular politicians, she said, but added that she ignored the advice for the sake of accounting to Parliament.

Vanara accused her of being obstructive, to which Brown said she had a right to defend herself and others against what seemed to be an attack on companies that should be pillars of the economy.

She repeatedly pointed to a lack of proof of allegations that state-owned companies were used to funnel money to the Gupta family through dubious contracts, facilitated by "captured" executives and politicians, and maintained that she was not among those.

Questioned by Steve Swart from the African Christian Democratic Party about detailed accounts from witnesses of how Eskom advanced a prepayment of R600 million for coal and a bank guarantee of R2.1 billion to facilitate Tegeta Exploration's acquisition of the Optimum coal mine, the minister said she viewed the sale as a corporate matter but if it involved ill-gotten gains it should be reversed.

Brown said it was at her insistence that Eskom's chief financial officer Anoj Singh was suspended to face disciplinary charges. Eskom was in August forced to retract Singh's assurances that there were no improper payments to Gupta-linked firm Trillian. The episode caused political embarrassment for Brown who had months earlier told Parliament that Eskom had not paid a cent to Trillian.

"Where I realised that I lied was where Eskom told me that they never paid Trillian directly," Brown said. 

She said she believed that Eskom had deliberately misled her at times, including on former CEO Brian Molefe's claim to early retirement.

ANA