Ex-Transnet chairperson Mkhwanazi dodges Zondo questions about Gama's reinstatement

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Former Transnet CEO Siyabonga Gama. Photo from Gallo Images
Former Transnet CEO Siyabonga Gama. Photo from Gallo Images
  • Mafika Mkhwanazi was the chairperson of the board that reinstated disgraced executive Siyabonga Gama.
  • Mkhwanazi could not tell the Zondo commission if the board's decision was influenced by external factors.
  • Gama headed Transnet's freight rail services later went on to become group CEO after his reinstatement.

Evasive, slippery, unsure and non-committal. These are some of the words that could be used to describe the evidence of former Transnet chairperson Mafika Mkhwanazi before the Zondo commission on Friday.

Mkhwanazi played a central role in the reinstatement of Siyabonga Gama in 2011, who had been found guilty on three charges of what had been described as serious charges of misconduct, and whose name went on to be later linked to allegations of aiding the hollowing out of the state-owned entity by Gupta-linked entities.

On Friday, Mkhwanazi, who oversaw Gama's reinstatement and his rise to the position of Transnet group CEO in 2016, could not directly answer why the board had found it acceptable to recall the executive and later consider his application for the job.

The commission, which is investigating allegation of corruption in the government and state-owned entities, has heard evidence from numerous former Transnet executives who were involved in the Gama saga, including a legal counsel who represented Transnet in the disciplinary hearing, Christopher Todd, as well as the firm's own head of legal services, Siyabulela Mapoma.

Both legal counsels indicated Gama's disciplinary process and his dismissal verdict were fair and the company stood a good chance of winning the case if he took it to arbitration. However, the company went on settle with him, paid a large part of his legal costs, took him back and backdated his salary. 

Gama was at the time of his dismissal the CEO of the Transnet freight rail unit and had been dismissed from the position in June 2010 for procurement-related breaches.

The question that remained though was why was the board so hell-bent on reinstating Gama, and whether there was external influence that informed its decision. Zondo repeatedly put it to Mkhwanazi that he found it hard to understand why they took Gama back, unless there was another agenda being pursued by the board.  

"It was not a question that there was some unfairness in his dismissal, it was not just a case that the board would lose at arbitration, there were some other considerations."

Mkhwanazi responded to Zondo's probing with, "I understand what you are saying", adding he can't fault his assessment.

His endorsement of Zondo's statement characterised his many responses to questions posed to him during the whole day's session, where he appeared to be at pains not to implicate anyone, while failing to put up a compelling argument for his board's decision to act in Gama's favour.

Witnesses, who had earlier given evidence before the commission including former public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan, indicated that influence for Gama's appointment as Transnet CEO came from former president Jacob Zuma. Mkhwanazi was non-committal to any inference that the board was acting under anyone's instruction.

After hours of wrangling over the matter, an exasperated advocate Anton Myburgh, who was leading evidence, put it to asked Mkhwanazi: "I don't know why you don't just accept that you had another agenda."

"Do you accept at least now … that the board's decision and your decision to reinstate Mr Gama in these circumstance does not make sense?" asked Zondo.

Again, Mkhwanazi could not provide a straight answer and instead pointed at a legal opinion that they had sought to assess the company's case ahead of the arbitration process that Gama had intended to pursue.

Gama was eventually fired from Transnet in October 2018 after the firm's new board cited serious violations of his fiduciary duties, and the directors had lost confidence in him.

His name is among other former Transnet executives who are being sued by Transnet in its bid to recover R1.3 billion said to have been squandered under their watch through irregular contracts and other forms of mismanagement, including funds funneled to Gupta-linked entities such as Regiments Capital.

The company benefited from massive overpayment for its role as Transnet advisors in the R54 billion acquisition of the 1 064  locomotives. Regiment should have been paid R15 million for its services but was paid R166 million.

Mkhwanazi will continue his evidence on Monday.

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