North West Premier Job Mokgoro authorised a R50 million payment to state-owned airline SA Express before any contract was signed between the provincial government and the airline five years ago.
The money was taken from a ring-fenced fund meant for the development of Mahikeng and surrounding areas, which continue to be faced with serious service delivery problems including potholed and generally bad roads, non-functional street lights, as well as water and sanitation challenges.
The airline was not even chosen as the preferred bidder through normal procurement processes.
Mokgoro authorised the release of money to pay SA Express knowing that the flights subsidy was not contained in programmes to be covered by the ring-fenced fund held by the office of the premier.
All this happened when he was the acting director-general of the North West government led by former premier Supra Mahumapelo in 2015.
Mokgoro, who on Thursday appeared before the state capture commission, was quizzed over the payment made to SA Express after the airline was chosen as the preferred service provider for the resuscitation of the flight route between Mahikeng Airport and OR Tambo International Airport, which was subsidised by the provincial government.
He said while there may have been some things which he was unhappy with, his role was to implement a decision taken by the Mahumapelo-led provincial executive committee.
Mokgoro has often been accused of having been part of Mahumapelo’s fifth administration and criticised for the wrong decisions taken then.
City Press has previously reported on how Mokgoro was linked by his signatures to a controversial wild game donation worth more than R100 million which was flagged by the Auditor-General and later reversed by a parliamentary portfolio committee.
The premier has often argued that he was implementing a decision taken by the executive committee when he signed off the donation on behalf of the North West Parks Board, while acting as its chairperson.
He was quoted in a previous story as saying: “I will not participate in something when there is clear evidence that it is illegal.”
R10m pulled from each department to Mahumapelo’s office
Mokgoro said each department contributed R10 million towards the Mahikeng Rebranding, Repositioning and Renewal Programme, which he has acknowledged that the resurrection of the flying route was not a part of.
The programme included, among other things:
- The beautification of Mahikeng;
- The development of the Rhino Recording Studios in Mahikeng;
- Increasing security around Mahikeng;
- Improving water and sanitation; and
- Fixing electricity infrastructure.
Advocate Kate Hofmeyr, evidence leader at the Zondo commission, asked Mokgoro if he was not concerned that the R50 million was taken from the R132 million budget that was meant for development and “put towards subsidy of the state entity so that flights can come [to Mahikeng]”.
“Certainly, I am concerned about a long shopping list of priorities … In the end, when implementation takes place that shopping list is not implemented,” Mokgoro responded.
He said prioritisation was with the executive committee and that while his then position as acting director-general had a role to advise, ultimately he had to implement decisions.
He also explained that after the R10 million had been taken from various departments and placed under the ring-fenced fund, departments would be required to come up with projects in line with their prospective mandates, follow procurement processes and request funds.
Commission chairperson Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo appeared not to understand why departments had to hand over money to the office of the premier only to request it later on.
“Why would departments not rather keep their money? Why was it necessary to bring money to the office of the premier? Why are you taking it away from them when it would still be used by them?” he asked.
Mokgoro said in response that the “situation was an unusual one …[The] same question you are raising, we asked.”
The premier was also quizzed on why money was released to fund the reinstatement of flights when the relevant department itself – the department of community safety and transport management – did not have a budget for it.
Mokgoro said he was merely doing what was expected of him in his then position.
“When there is a report by the department to the executive committee, and there is an acceptance by the committee, whom am I to refuse? Maybe I should have gone back to the executive committee and said its decision was uninformed, but it was not my space,” he said.
More holes in the R50 million payment
Mokgoro agreed that he authorised the R50 million payment before the department signed any contract with SA Express. He acknowledged a March 16 2015 letter sent to him by then head of department Bailey Mahlakoleng requesting R50 million towards payment to SA Express.
Hofmeyr pointed out to Mokgoro another anomaly with the letter from Mahlakoleng, which had an unsigned service-level agreement with SA Express attached. She said while the letter was dated March 16 2015, it was strange that it had an SA Express invoice dated March 24 2015.
“It does not add up,” Mokgoro reacted.
He further acknowledged that the R50 million was paid to SA Express while there were questions around its appointment, which was not done in line with normal procurement processes.
The Zondo commission has previously heard that SA Express was decided on over three other airlines that presented their plans because it was state-owned and not profit-driven.
Kutlwano Phatudi, chief financial officer for the community safety and transport management department, told the commission last year about a memo summarising proposals made by airlines on August 26 2014, in which the department recommended that the executive committee give a thumbs-up to the appointment of SA Express to resume operations on the Mahikeng-OR Tambo route.
Phatudi said this was the only process followed and that no other procurement or tender processes were complied with.
The airline was simply recommended and approved by the executive committee on December 3 2014.
Mokgoro said he authorised payment under the impression that it had been presented to the committee and procurement processes had been followed, and said that Phatudi’s evidence to the commission was contrary to what was presented to the committee by then Community Safety and Transport Management MEC Gaoage Molapisi and Mahlakoleng.
The premier was also questioned on the processes by the executive committee regarding its approval of and giving the department a go-ahead to sign a contract with SA Express while at the same time having reservations about the processes.
Cheaper airline overlooked while committee approves SA Express and demands analysis later
Hofmeyr told Mokgoro just how Continental Aviation Solutions was not considered despite its proposed start-up funding from government of R4.3 million.
She said the SA Express five-year contract was going to cost the provincial government R110 million in the first year, and asked how this was allowed to happen and why Mokgoro went forward without demanding any explanation or demanding that proper processes be followed.
On his thoughts on the decision to go with SA Express and not Continental, Mokgoro said: “It does not make sense”.
While the executive committee approved the appointment of SA Express, it had unresolved reservations.
“The head of department should have done a thorough analysis of all presentations received to outline what it means financially for the province to subsidise the Mahikeng-OR Tambo route 100%. [The department head should also have] considered all options and proposed the best option for consideration by the committee.
“What if the analysis comes later and suggests that there should have been no signing of contract? Why don’t you defer your decision until you see the analysis?” Zondo asked, to which Mokgoro responded: “I wish the executive committee was sitting in the seat I’m occupying now”.
Zondo: “How can you decide and tell the department to sign a contract and still need to go make an analysis and come back in two weeks?”
Mokgoro: “It might mean, for us to be sure, come back and clarify.”
Zondo: “If you saw something like this and it didn’t make sense to you, you will be entitled to refuse to authorise until you are satisfied. Whether or not that will change the situation, I expect any responsible leader to ask that question and I think that is one of the reasons why I would have had a discussion with the head of department.”