Ben Martins is theMineral Affairs and Energy minister. File photo: Leon Nicholas

Johannesburg - Transport Minister Ben Martins is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) board over the appointment of its chief executive.

The board has accused Martins of bullying it to appoint “his crony” and “close confidant” Tsietsi Mokhele as the chief executive.

Insiders at the board claim Martins’s decision was motivated by his intention to benefit financially in the lucrative maritime industry.

Samsa champions South Africa’s global maritime interests and safeguards its safety, health and environmental welfare. Its annual budget is about R300 million.

In an April 3 letter seen by The Star, Martins dismissed the board’s appointment of Dumisani Theophelus Ntuli as its preferred chief executive. He ordered the board to retain Tsietsi Mokhele in that position.

“I wish to inform the board that I have decided to appoint Mr Tsietsi Mokhele as the CEO of Samsa with effect from April 13, 2013.

“The board has not provided me with any cogent, objective and unbiased reason as to why Mr Mokhele should not be (re)appointed,” read the letter, signed by Martins.

Now, tension between the board and Martins over Mokhele’s appointment threatens to spill over into a public spat.

“The minister’s decision is an attack on the board’s integrity. We won’t bow to this kind of political pressure and this nonsense of cadre deployment.

“Appointment has to be based purely on merit and not cronyism,” said a source.

Fingers have also been pointed at Martins’s special adviser, Jacinto Rocha, as the man pushing the agenda to secure Mokhele’s reappointment. Rocha is the controversial former deputy director-general in the Minerals and Energy Department.

Mokhele, popularly known as The Commander, allegedly tried to foil the appointment of a new chief executive by refusing to authorise payment for an agency contracted for the recruitment process. He also allegedly tried to thwart an audit into an irregular expenditure on a ship salvage operation by instructing employees not to co-operate with the probe.

Samsa’s running battle with Martins began last October, when the board announced its intention not to automatically extend Mokhele’s five-year contract when it lapsed on December 31. Martins demanded that the advertisement for the new chief executive be suspended, but the board refused and proceeded with the recruitment process.

In turn, sources said, Martins summoned Samsa to a meeting on April 10, in which he is said to have threatened to fire the board. The board “grudgingly” extended Mokhele’s contract for three months, this time as acting chief executive.

Tension was further fuelled when, on March 7, the board suspended Mokhele for “frustrating” the recruitment of a new chief executive and an audit into the R31m irregular expenditure on the ship salvage.

Alarmed, Martins overturned the decision the next day.

Matters reached a head when Mokhele’s name was not among the list of shortlisted candidates.

On April 3, Martins wrote to the board, instructing it to appoint Mokhele as the chief executive. This has left the board seething.

“This man (Mokhele) now thinks he is the most powerful person in the maritime space because he has the minister in his pockets. We will fight this to the bitter end,” said a board member.

Martins denied that he had imposed Mokhele as the chief executive or that this was because he stood to benefit financially.

“The minister has no business interests in the maritime industry or any industry in the transport sector. He has never solicited business interests from board members or the management,” Martins’ spokes- man Tiyani Rikhotso said.

Mokhele rejected allegations that he had tried to prevent the appointment of the new chief executive and the audit into financial irregularities.

Samsa chairman Comfort Ngidi refused to comment.

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The Star