The Sunday Independent
New Prasa boss not rattled by skeleton in closet
RECENTLY appointed Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) boss, Zolani Kgosietsile “Kgosie” Matthews refuses to be derailed by controversy over his age and questionable experience in the rail sector. But he does have some “smallanyana” skeletons in his closet.
While his office says it’s full steam ahead for Matthews, his detractors are attempting to put the brakes on him in what has been labelled a dirty tricks campaign to stall his intended clean-up operation at Prasa.
Described as an astute businessman with qualifications from Harvard and Warwick University, Matthews is the younger brother of Naledi Pandor, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation. He is the son of former IFP deputy minister Joe Matthews and the grandson of ZK Matthews.
But there’s more than meets the eye for the man announced by Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula on February 27 to steer the rail utility out of the mess it is in. At least half a dozen people threw their names into the hat to conduct Prasa’s affairs.
When they did not succeed, some began spreading malicious rumours about Matthews. The one story doing the rounds on social media is based on fact – and innuendo published in American newspapers in the 1990s.
The newspapers claimed Matthews is a one-time Romeo, who three decades ago courted controversy and Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman elected to the US Senate. In 1992, his relationship with Senator Braun made headlines not only because he was nine years her junior.
Braun became the first African-American US senator from the Democratic Party, the first woman to defeat an incumbent US senator in an election, and the first female US senator from Illinois. Braun held the post until her defeat in 1998.
As her campaign manager, Matthews, who worked as Reverend Jesse Jackson’s road manager for his 1988 presidential campaign, was hailed as the mastermind behind her biggest triumph as a politician when she historically won the seat in the Senate. But things went awry. Matthews and Braun were romantically involved, briefly engaged, but the relationship ended within a year of her arrival in the Senate.
In the eyes of the US media, as much as he was lauded for her victory, Matthews was credited with Braun’s political demise, amid accusations of sexual harassment and fraud – both allegations which never went to court. He was also accused by lawmakers of fraudulently raking in $15000 a month on Braun’s tab while not registered to work in the US. But he was not charged.
Braun dismissed the fraud claims and also led an investigation into the sexual harassment claims, clearing her then beau, much to the chagrin of some members of her team, who complained about him in the media. While the claims did not stick it helped put the nail in Braun’s promising political career which saw her serve a single term as senator before being tossed out on the political scrapheap as a result. Later she was posted as ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa by president Bill Clinton, himself no stranger to controversy during his time in the White House.
Braun bid for the Democratic nomination in the 2004 US presidential election but failed. She also tried unsuccessfully to become mayor of Chicago in 2011. Without Matthews, it seems, she never recovered politically.
Observers in media suggest the sexual harassment claims against Matthews, picked on by influential media, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, hurt her political career. Even though his accusers remained anonymous throughout the saga, Matthews was not afforded space to express his side of the story. They said he ducked – which was not true.
The defamatory reporting also saw him labelled in the media as an agent of the Nigerian government. Matthews accompanied Braun several times to meet the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. This caused controversy in the US because she ditched her induction as senator to meet the general – newspapers claimed it was at Matthews’s insistence. But Matthews worked as a fixer for a law firm managing several accounts lobbying for business, facilitating meetings as go-between, and one of his clients was the government of Nigeria. Technically, according to the US laws at the time, in his role of work, he was defined as an agent.
Unbeknown to detractors, three decades later, Matthews and Braun remain cordial and in contact. Three years ago, Braun had asked Matthews to accompany her on a trip to meet the president of Equatorial Guinea. He did.
Following the announcement of his appointment by Mbalula, a row erupted over his age. At 64, he was deemed too old in accordance with government policy. But the Department of Transport cleared that one up quickly, saying Matthews was not a permanent employee. He got the job on a five-year contract.
But his detractors would not stop there. The story of his romance with Braun is currently doing the rounds on WhatsApp groups made up of several political players, featuring links to several newspaper articles containing details of his relationship with Braun, still one of the most revered women in America over her ground-breaking achievement in 1992.
The relevance was not clear, but some believe dirty tricks were at play to put the brakes on the ascension of Matthews to the top job. Many asked why an outcry was not there when he was appointed to the board of South African Post Office and Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.
Insiders say the job was one of the most courted given the billions the incumbent head would control. Since the departure of Lucky Montana six years ago, the rail utility has had half-a-dozen individuals holding the fort in acting capacities. Some were reportedly eyeing the role for themselves.
For more than a decade, Prasa has been fraught with challenges and renowned for irregular expenditure amounting to billions of rands.
As an outsider, Matthews is regarded as the saviour to heal Prasa of its chronic systemic ailments that have left it paralysed as one of the biggest culprits of wasteful expenditure by state-owned enterprises. Of the candidates on the shortlist, though not an engineer with experience in rail, Matthews’ vision was considered best on offer.
Asked to comment, Bane Ndlovu, spokesperson for Matthews, said his boss was keen to address the challenges facing him in his demanding new role than focus on the noise.
Matthews instead referred this media inquiry about his colourful past to Mbalula. But Ayanda-Allie Paine, spokesperson for Mbalula, declined to comment on matters of a personal nature.
In a statement from her publicist Kevin Lampe, Braun said: “The ambassador wishes to graciously decline your request. She did want to share her thoughts about your country and its people.
“South Africa is a beautiful country with amazing and diverse people. I enjoyed getting to know her even a bit. It was a brilliant experience.”