MOLEFE’S TRAGIC FALL

Once lauded for his acu­men, Molefe’s love of power and shiny things has cost him dearly

CityPress - - Front Page - MONDLI MAKHANYA mondli.makhanya@city­press.co.za

The story of the cap­ture, ridicule and even­tual fall of Eskom’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer (CEO) Brian Molefe is one of the most tragic de­vel­op­ments of our times. The spec­ta­cle of Molefe break­ing down and cry­ing be­fore a na­tional au­di­ence will al­ways be a haunting im­age from this tragedy. In his sad an­nounce­ment of his res­ig­na­tion from Eskom, Molefe painted him­self as the vic­tim of a gross in­jus­tice on the part of for­mer pub­lic pro­tec­tor Thuli Madon­sela.

Apart from Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma, Molefe got the worst hid­ing in her ex­plo­sive State of Cap­ture re­port, re­leased on Novem­ber 2, prompt­ing his pub­lic break­down and hal­lu­ci­na­tions about nonex­is­tent she­beens.

Claim­ing he had done noth­ing wrong, Molefe stressed that step­ping down was “not an ad­mis­sion of wrong­do­ing” but the right thing to do in the in­ter­ests of good cor­po­rate gover­nance and “in the in­ter­ests of Eskom and the pub­lic it serves”.

In his dark­est hour, Molefe had re­dis­cov­ered the no­ble pub­lic ser­vant he once was, the Molefe who South Africa had grown to ad­mire.

Molefe was part of that golden gen­er­a­tion – the founders of Trea­sury – who trans­formed an ar­chaic fi­nance depart­ment into a world-class in­sti­tu­tion that would sit at the cen­tre of South Africa’s eco­nomic pol­i­cy­mak­ing and fi­nan­cial man­age­ment.

That gen­er­a­tion en­sured that Trea­sury would al­ways be a cen­tre of ex­cel­lence in the truest sense. To this day, de­spite many of that co­hort hav­ing moved on and oth­ers hav­ing moved up, Trea­sury still at­tracts the bright­est minds and wields mas­sive power in the polity.

Like many of his col­leagues who oc­cupy high po­si­tions in the state and the pri­vate sec­tor, Molefe be­came a pow­er­ful man in his post-Trea­sury life. Those who came across him had only high praise. Even those who were irked by his ar­ro­gance and love for shiny things could not fault him on his abil­i­ties and in­tegrity.

Dur­ing his stint at the Pub­lic In­vest­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (PIC), Molefe earned ad­mi­ra­tion for his share­holder ac­tivism, in terms of which he used the in­sti­tu­tion’s strate­gic stakes in blue chip com­pa­nies to force trans­for­ma­tion im­per­a­tives and block cer­tain de­ci­sions. He be­came an un­pop­u­lar bully in the eyes of the busi­ness sec­tor as he took on giants such as Bar­loworld, Sa­sol and An­glo Amer­i­can.

Be­lieved to be close to for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki and in tune with his think­ing, Molefe was de­ter­mined that the PIC should be an ag­gres­sive agent of eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion.

Iron­i­cally, it was dur­ing this time that a some­what ques­tion­able side to him be­gan to emerge.

He was the driv­ing force be­hind the PIC’s con­tro­ver­sial sale, to an ANC-con­nected group­ing, of a 10.1% stake in Telkom, which the cor­po­ra­tion had been ware­hous­ing since a for­eign con­sor­tium pulled out. With the deal be­ing partly fi­nanced by the PIC, mem­bers of black in­vestor group the Ele­phant Con­sor­tium – which in­cluded sev­eral ANC lu­mi­nar­ies – landed with their bums in some soft but­ter.

This prompted one Smuts Ngonyama to give us that im­mor­tal line: “I didn’t join the strug­gle to be poor.”

When that halo fell off, there was more ques­tion­ing of Molefe’s ap­par­ent favour­ing of com­rades’ deals for fi­nan­cial back­ing. In those heady days of the Mbeki-Zuma con­flict, Molefe was fin­gered by sup­port­ers of the ma­chine gun man for be­ing pri­vate banker to the camp of the pipe-smok­ing philoso­pher king.

This char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion was to hit him hard when the vic­to­ri­ous Polok­wane bri­gade took the levers of state power and be­gan a pun­ish­ing of­fen­sive against any­thing and any­one as­so­ci­ated with Mbeki. Once one of the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in the coun­try, Molefe was now sud­denly lonely and vul­ner­a­ble as his term ap­proached its end in 2010. En­ter the Gup­tas. The ex­act mo­ment the Gup­tas en­snared Molefe is not clear, be­cause only they will be able to tell when their culi­nary ap­pre­ci­a­tions con­verged. The most com­mon ver­sion is that they sounded him out dur­ing his mo­ment of vul­ner­a­bil­ity – as is their modus operandi with all their catches.

It is said that it is this fam­ily – whose power had rock­eted since Zuma’s in­au­gu­ra­tion in 2009 – who fa­cil­i­tated a rap­proche­ment be­tween the out-of-favour Molefe and Zuma’s ANC. This brought Molefe back into the po­lit­i­cal in­ner sanc­tum, where the power-lov­ing man be­lieved he be­longed.

De­spite his be­ing ide­ally suited for the job, when Molefe was named CEO of Transnet in 2011, there were mur­murs in ANC and gov­ern­ment cir­cles that this was a Gupta ap­point­ment. At the time, sto­ries abounded about the hand of the Gup­tas in Zuma’s in­ex­pli­ca­ble Cab­i­net reshuf­fles and the ap­point­ments of paras­tatal ex­ec­u­tives and board mem­bers. This fit­ted the pat­tern.

Con­cern about Molefe’s Gupta ties spread as big and small busi­nesses com­plained – of­ten quite loosely – about be­ing dis­ad­van­taged by the gi­ant paras­tatal. Be­fore long, sus­pi­cion and gos­sip were treated as fact: Molefe was a Gup­tarite.

To his credit, he did a fine job of sta­bil­is­ing the com­pany, which had been with­out a per­ma­nent CEO since the de­par­ture of Maria Ramos in 2009.

Molefe’s April 2015 de­ploy­ment to Eskom as act­ing, and then per­ma­nent, CEO should have re­ceived uni­ver­sal ap­plause. In­stead, there was pub­lic ap­plause and pri­vate back­bit­ing.

The back­bit­ing line said that if he man­aged to do for the Gup­tas what he was be­lieved to have done for them at Transnet, this fam­ily would be sit­ting re­ally pretty as they now had the two prime en­gines of South Africa’s econ­omy in their hands.

No mat­ter the suc­cess of his in­ter­ven­tions at Eskom and the end of load shed­ding on his watch, there was this mon­key cling­ing tightly to his back.

His de­trac­tors would get their “Aha!” mo­ment when rev­e­la­tions emerged of Eskom’s dodgy re­la­tion­ship with Gupta com­pa­nies – a re­la­tion­ship whose mat­u­ra­tion neatly co­in­cided with Molefe’s ar­rival. He was now con­fi­dently slot­ted in to the long ant-line of Gupta-owned min­is­ters and pub­lic ser­vants.

With the re­lease of the State of Cap­ture re­port, the “Brian is a Gup­tarite” whis­pers that be­gan in 2010 got an of­fi­cial stamp.

As if dis­cussing a friend or fam­ily mem­ber who went rogue, for­mer col­leagues and ac­quain­tances scratch their heads and shrug their shoul­ders when talk­ing about “what went wrong with Brian”. Some say it was in­evitable given his need to be seen to be pow­er­ful and to wield power. Oth­ers say it was his love of lovely things – make of that what you will. Still oth­ers say his affin­ity for ex­treme sports trans­lates to his real life, where this biker opens him­self up to risk.

All of the above prob­a­bly holds true. But the an­swer is sim­pler. Like most good peo­ple who lose their way, he dipped his toes in wa­ters he should not have – and, be­fore he knew it, he was in the mid­dle of the river and en­joy­ing the swim. So much so that he is one of very few se­nior peo­ple to openly ad­mit to a friend­ship with, and even sto­ically de­fend, the Gup­tas. He has also used bizarre lan­guage to at­tack those who de­monise them.

“It is a dan­ger­ous cul­ture. I have been to Lim­popo, where peo­ple were burnt alive be­cause peo­ple were say­ing they were witches,” he said re­cently.

He con­ve­niently for­got to add that in this case, there were no san­go­mas throw­ing bones and smelling out witches, but solid pa­per trails lead­ing to the Gup­tas.

And it is be­cause he was un­der their roof that he too got burnt.

PHOTO: LEON SADIKI

DRA­MATIC TURN­ING POINT Eskom CEO Brian Molefe broke down at a re­cent me­dia ad­dress on Eskom’s lat­est fi­nan­cial re­ports af­ter talk turned to his be­ing named in the State of Cap­ture probe as a key player over al­le­ga­tions that Eskom may have fraud­u­lently given money to a Gupta-linked firm

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