Former Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown on Friday told the Zondo commission she saw no reason to relieve Eskom board members of their duties because they had ties to the Gupta family.
“I spoke to a number of them at the time and I did not think I should fire them because they were linked to the Guptas,” she said under questioning from evidence leader Pule Seleka as to why, on her watch, the board of the entity was weighted with allies of the family at the centre of state capture.
Seleka made the point that the board members were not drawn from the shareholder’s database of suitable directors, but that the positions were advertised publicly, only to be filled with people who later appeared compromised.
Brown said she signed off on the advertisement, because she thought it was a good idea to open up the process.
“It wasn’t something that I constructed in order to get a particular grouping of people in,” she said.
Brown spent the morning on the witness stand strenuously resisting any notion that she failed to exercise proper oversight over the state power utility during a particularly troubled period of load-shedding in 2015.
Brown said she was concerned by reports of a pre-payment of R659-million for coal to the Gupta’s Tegeta Exploration in April 2016 and called Eskom’s executives, but was assured that advance payment for coal was quite normal.
“I was concerned about it; I was concerned about the media reports. They had given me answers that were sufficiently good to me because they said they had done this with other mining companies … and I just wish to leave it there,” she said.
The postponed board meeting
Brown was then grilled by Seleka about a conversation in early 2015 in which it was relayed to her by then acting public enterprises director general Matsietsi Mokholo that then president Jacob Zuma had called her and instructed her to order the postponement of an Eskom board meeting.
Mokholo said when she told Brown about the call, after the minister returned from a trip abroad, Brown simply replied: “Eish.”
Brown denied that she used the word, but said Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo was correct in understanding Mokholo’s testimony as meaning she had disapproved.
“She says that I said — when she told me about the meeting I did not look perplexed or anything — in fact she used the term, which is not in my lexidon, ‘eish’. Now I want to refute that I used that term because it is just not in my language. I use very few slang words,” Brown said.
Zondo asked: “The impression I got was that you were thinking something like that, maybe that should not have happened?”
Brown replied: “I wasn’t pleased with it because I don’t think anyone in the executive should be interfering with board meetings … My view is we should not be cancelling anybody’s meetings, especially board meetings, because it then becomes a matter of interference.”
When the meeting finally took place on 11 March, it culminated in a decision to sideline four senior executives, which paved the way for the secondment of Brian Molefe and Anoj Singh from Transnet to Eskom.
Brown said she was happy with the board’s decision — which several witnesses have traced back to an instruction from Zuma — to order the executives to step aside, because she wanted an inquiry to get to the root causes of Eskom’s problems, without interference.
Brown said she had a conversation with Zuma around this time “between the 8th and the 11th [of March]” but said she had no recollection of him raising the matter with her.
“The president was seized with the matter of load-shedding,” she said.
She added that she had no idea that former SAA chairwoman Dudu Myeni was present at a meeting Zuma held with then Eskom chairman Zola Tsotsi, at which the suspension was ordered. According to Tsotsi, Myeni raised the suspension of the executives.
Brown earlier denied that she withdrew from the Eskom war room, headed by then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, and deflected a question as to why board chairman Ben Ngubane was allowed to cease co-operating with the structure.
The question should rather go to then president Jacob Zuma, because he had convened the war room, she said.
Brown said her priority and that of the newly seconded Molefe had been to turn the tide of rolling blackouts, and said the war room was dealing with wider, technical issues that were not relevant to this quest to stop “terrible load-shedding two, three times a day”.
“Nobody could tell me how to stop load-shedding and the terrible financial crisis we were in,” she said.
Brown claimed that she was at a remove from the actual oversight process, because Eskom reported to a director for energy in her department, and said the process was encumbered by the power utility’s slowness in submitting documents.
“In the department of public enterprises, personally, I don’t do oversight. It is done by the DDG [deputy director general] on energy and his or her department,” she submitted.
Zondo exasperated at lack of oversight
The response exasperated Zondo, who said one of the issues the commission was considering was the role of government departments in holding relevant people to account on performance failure and allegations of corruption.
He said it was plain that entities were at the point of collapsing, because those who were supposed to perform oversight had failed to do so for a prolonged period.
“It is not getting better, it is getting worse,” he said and paused to point that South Africa was once again in the grip of load-shedding.
“Maybe one should say: ‘The executive, are they not capable of identifying what the problem is?’” he asked.
“And if they are not capable of that, can they not find people with the right expertise anywhere in the world to find out what the problem is and then solve the problem?
“It is going on and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel … 10 years from now we might be having the same problem,” Zondo added.
It was his view, he concluded, that performance of oversight had been extremely poor.
Lack of oversight is a ‘structural problem’
Brown countered that she did perform oversight but that it was bedevilled by the model that pertains to state-owned enterprises.
“I would not say I didn’t have oversight,” she said.
“The documentation you get from the department that does the actual work, it is very late, so it is a structural problem.”
Brown was the minister who solicited the secondment of Molefe from Transnet to Eskom, along with Anoj Singh as the new chief financial officer of the power utility. The two men have in recent weeks been confronted at the commission with testimony that they received bags of cash during visits to the Gupta family’s Saxonwold home.