Mondli Makhanya: The tragic fall of Brian Molefe

2016-11-13 06:00
Eskom CEO Brian Molefe. (Lerato Sejake, News24)

Eskom CEO Brian Molefe. (Lerato Sejake, News24)

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The story of the capture, ridicule and eventual fall of Eskom’s chief executive officer (CEO) Brian Molefe is one of the most tragic developments of our times.

The spectacle of Molefe breaking down and crying before a national audience will always be a haunting image from this tragedy.

In his sad announcement of his resignation from Eskom, Molefe painted himself as the victim of a gross injustice on the part of former public protector Thuli Madonsela.

Apart from President Jacob Zuma, Molefe got the worst hiding in her explosive State of Capture report, released on November 2, prompting his public breakdown and hallucinations about nonexistent shebeens.

Claiming he had done nothing wrong, Molefe stressed that stepping down was “not an admission of wrongdoing” but the right thing to do in the interests of good corporate governance and “in the interests of Eskom and the public it serves”.

In his darkest hour, Molefe had rediscovered the noble public servant he once was, the Molefe who South Africa had grown to admire.

Molefe was part of that golden generation – the founders of Treasury – who transformed an archaic finance department into a world-class institution that would sit at the centre of South Africa’s economic policymaking and financial management.

That generation ensured that Treasury would always be a centre of excellence in the truest sense.

To this day, despite many of that cohort having moved on and others having moved up, Treasury still attracts the brightest minds and wields massive power in the polity.

Like many of his colleagues who occupy high positions in the state and the private sector, Molefe became a powerful man in his post-Treasury life.

Those who came across him had only high praise. Even those who were irked by his arrogance and love for shiny things could not fault him on his abilities and integrity.

During his stint at the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), Molefe earned admiration for his shareholder activism, in terms of which he used the institution’s strategic stakes in blue chip companies to force transformation imperatives and block certain decisions.

He became an unpopular bully in the eyes of the business sector as he took on giants such as Barloworld, Sasol and Anglo American.

Believed to be close to former president Thabo Mbeki and in tune with his thinking, Molefe was determined that the PIC should be an aggressive agent of economic transformation.

Ironically, it was during this time that a somewhat questionable side to him began to emerge.

He was the driving force behind the PIC’s controversial sale, to an ANC-connected grouping, of a 10.1% stake in Telkom, which the corporation had been warehousing since a foreign consortium pulled out.

With the deal being partly financed by the PIC, members of black investor group the Elephant Consortium – which included several ANC luminaries – landed with their bums in some soft butter.

This prompted one Smuts Ngonyama to give us that immortal line: “I didn’t join the struggle to be poor.”

When that halo fell off, there was more questioning of Molefe’s apparent favouring of comrades’ deals for financial backing. In those heady days of the Mbeki-Zuma conflict, Molefe was fingered by supporters of the machine gun man for being private banker to the camp of the pipe-smoking philosopher king.

This characterisation was to hit him hard when the victorious Polokwane brigade took the levers of state power and began a punishing offensive against anything and anyone associated with Mbeki.

Once one of the most powerful people in the country, Molefe was now suddenly lonely and vulnerable as his term approached its end in 2010.

Enter the Guptas.

The exact moment the Guptas ensnared Molefe is not clear, because only they will be able to tell when their culinary appreciations converged.

The most common version is that they sounded him out during his moment of vulnerability – as is their modus operandi with all their catches.

It is said that it is this family – whose power had rocketed since Zuma’s inauguration in 2009 – who facilitated a rapprochement between the out-of-favour Molefe and Zuma’s ANC.

This brought Molefe back into the political inner sanctum, where the power-loving man believed he belonged.

Despite his being ideally suited for the job, when Molefe was named CEO of Transnet in 2011, there were murmurs in ANC and government circles that this was a Gupta appointment.

At the time, stories abounded about the hand of the Guptas in Zuma’s inexplicable Cabinet reshuffles and the appointments of parastatal executives and board members. This fitted the pattern.

Concern about Molefe’s Gupta ties spread as big and small businesses complained – often quite loosely – about being disadvantaged by the giant parastatal.

Before long, suspicion and gossip were treated as fact: Molefe was a Guptarite.

To his credit, he did a fine job of stabilising the company, which had been without a permanent CEO since the departure of Maria Ramos in 2009.

Molefe’s April 2015 deployment to Eskom as acting, and then permanent, CEO should have received universal applause.

Instead, there was public applause and private backbiting.

The backbiting line said that if he managed to do for the Guptas what he was believed to have done for them at Transnet, this family would be sitting really pretty as they now had the two prime engines of South Africa’s economy in their hands.

No matter the success of his interventions at Eskom and the end of load shedding on his watch, there was this monkey clinging tightly to his back.

His detractors would get their “Aha!” moment when revelations emerged of Eskom’s dodgy relationship with Gupta companies – a relationship whose maturation neatly coincided with Molefe’s arrival.

He was now confidently slotted in to the long ant-line of Gupta-owned ministers and public servants.

With the release of the State of Capture report, the “Brian is a Guptarite” whispers that began in 2010 got an official stamp.

As if discussing a friend or family member who went rogue, former colleagues and acquaintances scratch their heads and shrug their shoulders when talking about “what went wrong with Brian”.

Some say it was inevitable given his need to be seen to be powerful and to wield power.

Others say it was his love of lovely things – make of that what you will. Still others say his affinity for extreme sports translates to his real life, where this biker opens himself up to risk.

All of the above probably holds true. But the answer is simpler. Like most good people who lose their way, he dipped his toes in waters he should not have – and, before he knew it, he was in the middle of the river and enjoying the swim.

So much so that he is one of very few senior people to openly admit to a friendship with, and even stoically defend, the Guptas. He has also used bizarre language to attack those who demonise them.

“It is a dangerous culture. I have been to Limpopo, where people were burnt alive because people were saying they were witches,” he said recently.

He conveniently forgot to add that in this case, there were no sangomas throwing bones and smelling out witches, but solid paper trails leading to the Guptas.

And it is because he was under their roof that he too got burnt.


Do you believe Brian Molefe when he says his resignation from Eskom is not an admission of guilt?

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Read more on:    eskom  |  brian molefe  |  thuli madonsela  |  state of capture report

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