The’dis’missal led to a ferocious public war of words between Montana and board chair Popo Molefe
The battle for control of the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) is set to intensify this week as national government enters the fray. Prasa board members were this weekend due to meet senior government ministers to give them “an understanding” of why they had fired Lucky Montana as CEO this week. City Press understands that there is a “lot of anger” in Cabinet circles about the summary dismissal of Montana by the Prasa board.
The board announced that Montana would not be required to service the remainder of his six-month notice period – a dismissal with immediate effect.
But there is now a strong push within government for Montana to be reinstated, which may result in the Prasa board chair leaving instead.
The dismissal led to a ferocious public war of words between Montana and board chair Popo Molefe, with Montana warning Molefe that he “may have won the battle, but not the war”.
Reasons for Montana’s dismissal were scheduled to be provided on Thursday, but the board cancelled the press conference at the 11th hour after government ordered it to do so. According to well-placed sources, Cabinet, including President Jacob Zuma, felt the board should have taken them into its confidence before going public and escalating the conflict.
Although he holds no formal position in the movement, Montana is an influential behind-the-scenes player in ANC circles and his access goes to the highest levels. He has been accused of using this clout to push his executives and even board members around.
Those sympathetic to Montana felt he was given a raw deal by Molefe’s board, as well as Transport Minister Dipuo Peters, who immediately accepted the board’s decision.
“You do not treat someone like him like that. He has done so much for public transport in this country. There is no one who knows more about rail in South Africa than him. That is why a proper explanation is needed,” said a senior government figure.
According to insiders, there was a strong push from “high up” for Montana’s reinstatement, and this week could see Peters square up against some Cabinet colleagues because she is firmly on the side of Molefe and the board.
“Don’t be shocked if you see Montana back in his seat and Molefe out the door,” said a political insider.
However, the source cautioned, this could result in the collapse of the board, something government did not want happening at yet another state-owned entity.
Montana has been embroiled in controversy in recent weeks as reports in City Press and sister paper Rapport revealed Prasa had bought 13 new trains at a cost of R600 million that are too tall for our railway lines.
Political insiders said that because of its large procurement budget, Prasa had, like other parastatals, become contested terrain for connected individuals wanting a piece of the pie. “That is how you must see the battle at the board,” said one. Meanwhile, details have emerged of the dramatic meeting on Wednesday night, which nearly ended in fisticuffs between Montana and Molefe. Sources told City Press that tension was palpable as Montana and Molefe sat directly across from each other at the boardroom table.
The meeting was scheduled to discuss the qualifications of Prasa’s suspended head engineer, Daniel Mthimkhulu, the handling of communications of the train scandal and Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s provisional findings against Prasa.
The board also wanted answers on an alleged “breach of agreement”, in which Montana signed off on a tender despite having agreed not to do so. After being grilled on these and other issues, Montana increasingly became agitated and a screaming match ensued between him and Molefe. Montana told Molefe that he knew “he did not like him” and accused him of breaching governance rules by meeting with Prasa suppliers without his knowledge.
“You chose to win the battle, but you are going to lose the war,” Montana allegedly told Molefe while pointing a finger at him. He later repeated this line publicly.
Molefe took umbrage at Montana’s tone and accusations and shouted back at Montana, accusing him of “disrespecting the board”.
The two reportedly nearly came to blows, but other board members intervened and calmed them down.
Montana, who had warned at the beginning of the meeting that his uncle was on his death bed in hospital, had to leave abruptly when a text message came through that his uncle had died.
After Montana left, the board decided overwhelmingly to get rid of him. When he arrived home from hospital, he found his dismissal letter waiting for him. “That was very cruel,” a Montana sympathiser said. Neither Montana nor Molefe could not be reached for comment. Prasa spokesperson Sipho Sithole refused to comment on the details of the board meeting.