The quiet technocrat: is Andy Mothibi the state capture clean-up’s secret weapon?

Advocate Andy Mothibi. (Gallo)
Advocate Andy Mothibi. (Gallo)

Advocate Andy Mothibi and the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) could well turn out to be the state's secret weapon in its arsenal in trying to clean up after grand corruption and capture. Sarah Evans interviewed the quiet technocrat in charge of recovering billions of rand lost to the fiscus. 

As harrowing tales of state capture play out at the state capture commission of inquiry and behind closed doors at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the state is harbouring a secret weapon in the corruption clean-up operation.

Away from the public eye, advocate Andy Mothibi and his team at the SIU are building case after case against some of the state's biggest looters. 

While the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is responsible for pursuing the state capturers in criminal matters, the SIU's job is to investigate dodgy government work and make recommendations - often including pursuing civil litigation to reclaim that money for the state.

The SIU can also recommend that matters be referred to the NPA or that other disciplinary action be taken. But its work is primarily forensic in nature, and it is hired by government agencies to dig into suspicious transactions. 

It is not glamorous work. There are no big speeches from the courtroom floor. This is technical, and difficult work that takes place away from the public eye.

READ | SIU 'happy' to co-operate with Public Protector in Public Works probe

But it is essential for the fight against corruption, particularly as the public grows ever more anxious to see those involved in state capture in orange overalls.

The SIU cannot put them in jail, but it can make sure they pay back the money.

Investigating the biggest instances of capture

Advocate Andy Mothibi is not a man of sweeping ideological statements, nor is he a politician. He is a technocrat, the kind that many commentators have said the fight against corruption needs.

The SIU's caseload is a who's who of the state capture era: Eskom's coal contracts; Transnet's infamous consulting agreements with firms such as Gupta-linked Trillian; the SABC; and more. It extends to dodgy public works contracts and shoddy service delivery in municipalities.

The Eskom case is court ready, Mothibi says and if the SIU is successful, the state stands to get back R2bn that was allegedly looted. It is tied up in at least a further R2bn in civil litigation in other matters.

Just last week, it was announced in the Government Gazette that the SIU would be investigating dodgy contracts at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) - a major site of alleged looting during the state capture era.

But the SIU's efforts in civil litigation matters have been hamstrung by over-burdened court rolls. That is why Mothibi initiated the establishment of a special tribunal that will operate like a specialised court, with its own judges, to hear the SIU's civil litigation cases.

Mothibi says the tribunal, like so many mechanisms available to the state to fight corruption, "has always been there in law, but it has not been used."

Andy Mothibi

(Leon Sadiki, Gallo)

Mothibi walked through the doors of the SIU's Pretoria offices three years ago, and found an organisation in need of a shake-up.

There were cases that were up to nine years old, and the SIU's recommendations (it can recommend that cases go to the National Prosecuting Authority for prosecution, for example) were often ignored by other government bodies.

He has tweaked the organisation in ways that speak to his passions: restructuring it, tightening the SIU's case management, making follow-ups a priority, and aggressively going after those who waste government money in court.

Mothibi wants the SIU to compete with the best of the private forensic investigation firms in the country.

READ | Funding a concern for corruption busters - the SIU and NPA

The SIU's offices in Pretoria are a maze of unassuming yellowish offices and narrow passages, and reaching the boardroom requires accessing a few security gates. There is a wealth of sensitive information within these walls.

The premises is perfectly professional in appearance, but the whiff of government budget cuts, which have hit the justice cluster particularly hard, hangs in the air. A fresh coat of paint would not hurt.

Another former SARS man

Mothibi is slickly presented in a crisp blue suit. He enters the boardroom and says, in passing, that he has been in meetings with union representatives. He does not elaborate, but hints at how important it is to ensure that all processes are properly followed in those proceedings.

It is his forte.

After working as a public prosecutor and magistrate, Mothibi's first foray into the public service was when he was seconded by the then Department of Finance (now National Treasury) to lead the human resources leg of the formation of the new South African Revenue Services (SARS), in the 1990s.

He developed a passion for labour relations.

His job was to manage the moving of staff from the department into SARS, negotiating with about 15 unions at the time. The entity that SARS became is something of which is he is extremely proud.

"Daunting as it was, we had to do it, and we did it well," he says.

Mothibi says the early SARS staff were motivated by a desire to create an entity that was governed by sound business principles that could compete with the best revenue collection agencies in the world.

"We really succeeded," he says.

By 2004, another of his passions, corporate governance, led him to another post-graduate qualification in that field. He became an expert in risk management, saving his employers billions by tightening up corporate governance. It is a skill that would later serve him well at the SIU.

In 2005, he took up an offer to head up the compliance division at South African Airways, and went on to head up an operational risk management division at Nedbank.

The operational risk framework he and his team put in place with Nedbank would lead to the bank saving R800m, Mothibi says.

His next employer, Standard Bank, would save R1bn thanks to his and his team's risk management interventions.

A similar stint at Medscheme later, Mothibi had under his belt expertise in just the kind of skills desperately needed by the public sector: human resources, legal expertise, risk management, and forensic auditing.

And then, in 2016, there was a position open for the head of the SIU.

"I always had this in me, that at some point I'll come back to government to contribute," Mothibi says.

This desire to contribute was born in the heady days of the student activism which defined much of the anti-apartheid struggle, in the 1970s, as Mothibi completed high school.

He finished school in Zeerust, about 300 kilometres away from his birthplace near Hammanskraal. His early years were spent in the care of his grandmother, and later, his uncle, who became his guardian after she died.

Mothibi went on to complete his law degree at what is now called the University of the North West, in 1987. It was here, in the thick of the apartheid government's states of emergencies and violent suppression of anti-apartheid struggle, that his desire to contribute to public life was born.

He became president of his university's law association and much of that time was spent ensuring that his university, isolated in the former homeland of Bophuthatswana, participated in university level debates with the other, wealthier universities.

He wanted his university to compete with the best of the country's more affluent institutions – another predictor of what he would do at the SIU.

But Mothibi does not dwell on his personal life. It is when discussing the optimal running of organisations that his eyes light up.

It's a trait highlighted by a former colleague from his SARS days.

"That's him. The focus is on work and people, not him," says the former colleague.

"If he speaks out, it will be because of principle and because it is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, he will listen, think, and consult, and then act. A real gentleman, and thorough. But not attention grabbing at all. Quite the opposite. Really good manners too. A genuinely good person. Passionate about people and SA," the former colleague gushes.

He adds: "If he (Mothibi) is corrupt or criminal, I would lose all faith in humankind."

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