Siyabonga Gama, the former chief executive of Transnet Freight Rail (TFR), is to return to the parastatal in an executive position before the end of this month – less than a year after he was kicked out.
Two people close to developments at Transnet – one of whom had lobbied for Gama to get the top job – said Gama had met the parastatal’s executive chair, Mafika Mkwanazi.
City Press has also learned that Gama applied for the group chief executive position and was interviewed in Cape Town last week on Monday.
However, he was passed over in favour of Brian Molefe, the former Public Investment Corporation (PIC) chief executive.
People close to Gama said he was likely to return to the parastatal to fill the vacant position of chief operating officer or that of his old job.
They said that Gama was negotiating his contract and was to commence his duties immediately.
Gama could not be reached for comment, but on Friday his lawyer Themba Langa refused to comment on his client’s imminent return to Transnet.
Langa said: “Your sources are lying. Do not be misled by people.”
Gama’s supporters believe he should have been given the job as he has more operational experience than Molefe.
Three other sources said they were aware of talks of Gama’s return, saying it was imminent.
It is understood that Gama is most likely to get the COO job because of his operational understanding of the business, and to complement Molefe’s financial markets strength.
Mkwanazi and Gama had worked together at Transnet when the former was the chief executive and the latter head of the Transnet Port Authority.
Gama has been in limbo since June last year, when he was found guilty of breaching governance requirements relating to two contracts.
The composition of the executive team and the board that presided over his case has since changed and some have left. This could pave the way for his return.
Gama is challenging the ruling and his subsequent dismissal.
Mboniso Sigonyela, Transnet’s spokesperson, said: “The matter involving Mr Gama is an ongoing legal and HR issue. It would be inappropriate to comment on its details until it is finalised.”
The parastatal is in the middle of a R93.4-billion capital expenditure plan over the next five years.
Industrial Development Corporation economist Lumkile Mondi said Molefe’s biggest challenge would be to introduce new thinking at the parastatal as most governments worldwide were running deficits, which meant they didn’t have sufficient funds for capital investments.
He said: “It may be better to bring in private-sector investors to upgrade our rail network to help the country better exploit its strategic resources such as manganese and coal.”
Molefe’s appointment suggests that he enjoys the support of the current political dispensation. His tenure at the PIC was marked by two significant periods.
Early on, he enjoyed the confidence of former president Thabo Mbeki and was vilified by unions for the role the corporation played in financing a BEE stake in Telkom for beneficiaries that were close to Mbeki.
Later on in his career, he appeared to gain favour from President Jacob Zuma after the PIC helped the president’s son Duduzane and the president’s friends, the Guptas, acquire the local arm of Canadian firm Uranium One.
The company has since rebranded and is now called Shiva Uranium.
Although Molefe’s appointment seems to have the blessing of the ANC’s top brass, some in the tripartite alliance are questioning the rationale for his elevation.
On Friday, a well-placed ANC leader said: “We hope he is not going to be an extension of [former chief executive] Maria Ramos. We wanted somebody fresh who will implement our agenda.
“We hope this is not going to be a continuation of the 1996 class project (a term ANC members use to describe the Mbeki administration).”
Molefe is married to Portia, the former public enterprises director-general, who – along with Alec Erwin, the former public enterprises minister – appointed the former Treasury director-general as Transnet’s chief executive in 2004.
Ramos is now Absa’s chief executive.
Ezrom Mabyana, the president of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, said: “We welcome the appointment because it was long pending, but we are disappointed because we were not consulted. We will give him a chance.”
The United Transport and Allied Trade Union (Utatu) said it was “cautiously optimistic” about Molefe’s appointment as the parastatal’s new chief executive.
“Without knowing the gentleman, or his understanding of human resources in a complex rail and harbours setup, we are not in a position to welcome Mr Molefe with open arms,” Utatu general secretary Steve Harris said.
“[But] he has an excellent track record, sound financial knowledge and political leverage – a vital factor in getting things done at Transnet – and, better still, an outstanding wife who knows and understands Transnet and our union,” Harris said.