There is an ugly spat brewing at Transnet. It's one which is not unlike some of the others taking place in various institutions across the country where the interests of party and state continue to collide in a messy and undermining way. Transnet has a potentially pivotal role to play in the economy, though of course the para-statal has been beset with challenges. Not even the talismanic powers of former CEO, Maria Ramos were enough to turn this complex animal around. A row over the appointment of a new CEO is not what it needs now, but it looks increasingly likely.
Siyabonga Gama, Transnet Freight and Rail CEO seems to have intense political backing to step into Maria Ramos's shoes as the next Transnet CEO. In a curious statement recently, Minister of Justice, Jeff Radebe, fast becoming the real bruiser in Zuma's cabinet, said, ‘"Some of us will ensure that he gets the job."
On what basis is Radebe making such a comment? Is he doing so at the President's bidding or the ANC's, one wonders? The public has the right to know since Transnet expends taxpayers' money. Also, the information in the public domain is that Gama was not the top contender for the CEO position. Pravin Gordhan was, but since becoming Finance minister he was no longer a contender. More importantly, there appear to be allegations against Gama in relation to ‘serious breaches in certain procurement contracts', according to a Transnet statement. The charges against him relate to a locomotive contract awarded to a company, allegedly, against the express instructions of the Transnet board as well as allegations that a multi-million rand security contract was awarded to a company believed to have links with Communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda. Gama has been suspended, pending the outcome of an internal disciplinary process. The political noise being made by Radebe and other alliance partners is that there is a ‘conspiracy' to keep Gama out of the job. Yawn. We have heard that one before.
The real question to be asked is why Gama is being backed politically? Why this intense interest by Radebe and the alliance partners in securing the top job for an individual, we now hear was not the favourite for the position in the first place? The unions have said a black person must head up Transnet. One can bet that there are other competent black people out there who could take the job in an instant. Why stake the credibility of Transnet (what's left of it) on an individual who faces serious disciplinary charges dating back to 2007? Might the correct corporate governance response not be to allow the investigation into Gama to go ahead without fear or favour and to appoint a new CEO forthwith? What is it that makes Gama so suited to the CEO's position above anyone else? Whatever the links between Gama and the ANC, or whatever vested interests may be at play, Gama must be given an opportunity to clear his name. Radebe's influence and political peddling is unwelcome and unecesssary. The appointment of a new CEO must be left in the hands of the appropriate minister, Barbara Hogan. Given the recent ham-handed judgment of the Judicial Services Commission in the Hlophe matter, where Radebe's political influence also loomed large, it seems that negotiating accountability and sub-ordinating principle for the sake of an individual is becoming the leitmotif of South African politics. Let's hope the Transnet issue is an exception.
Similarly, Radebe bruised his way through Parliament last week when the Defence and Military Veterans' committee met with the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC). Radebe is its new chair. The NCACC has not publicly reported to Parliament on which countries South Africa has sold arms to since 2005, when the reports were marked ‘confidential'. Radebe craftily kicked for touch, avoiding every one of DA MP, David Maynier's questions on prospective arms deals. Of course Maynier was pushing the envelope a bit since chair, Nyami Booi had carefully crafted an agenda in which Radebe and other members of the executive were only required to present the report for 2008 (covering the Mbeki administration). They however pledged a quarterly report, ‘soon'. The ministers appeared relaxed before the committee. And they should have been, for the tone of the meeting was one of deference. Questions put by the ANC members of the committee were either frivolous or designed to draw attention away from the obvious issues Maynier was raising. Will the Zuma government come clean on who we sell arms to? Can it also assure us that we are not dealing with rogue regimes? Listening to Radebe and witnessing the lack of enthusiasm by ANC MPs to put any question which might offend to the executive, accountability on such an important issue seems some way off yet.
Written by: Judith February
This article first appeared in the Cape Times, Thursday, 10 September 2009.