It was May 2017 in Cape Town. The public enterprises committee of parliament was holding its sitting at the Townhouse Hotel. That hotel has become something of a staple for government employees needing accommodation in Cape Town, and for NGO seminars and other meetings.
Ironically, it is diagonally opposite the old Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa) building at Spin Street in the heart of the CBD.
The atmosphere was tense, not only in the hotel, but in the country as a whole. The talk was of state capture: a small coterie of politically connected people had drawn influential leaders into their fold, and were allegedly extorting funds and favours from the state. This had a particular significance for the country’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) since they handled billions of rand and were the dispensers of multibillion-rand deals in tenders. What had brought the committee to the Townhouse were shenanigans at Eskom, SA’s power utility and a tempting prize for unscrupulous operators.
State capture was by that stage no mere theoretical question. For some time, allegations had been circulating about the relationship between Eskom and the controversial Gupta family. Eskom was, for example, alleged to have assisted Gupta-linked business operations to secure funding to purchase a coal mine that would provide it with coal. The goings-on at Eskom had also been scrutinised by the public protector in her "State of Capture" report.
Concerns existed about the newly (re)hired CEO of Eskom, Brian Molefe, whose appointment was the focus of the committee’s work that day. I attended the committee meeting, knowing that recently fired Pravin Gordhan was now a member of the public enterprises committee.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the South African parliament and the way it is structured is that all committee meetings are open to the public, unless there are extremely compelling reasons for them to be closed.
Chairs of parliamentary committees generally adhere to this rule, though some have tried to close access to committees during controversial sittings. They are very rarely successful since the media and many active civil society organisations working on parliamentary issues watch committees with hawk-like enthusiasm for any such breaches.
At Idasa we were extremely watchful of breaches of openness and transparency. I recall an instance in 2009 when the national conventional arms control committee was to report to parliament’s defence committee on arms transactions specifically to repressive regimes. It was controversial because it was the first time in three years that the national conventional arms control committee had reported to parliament. The issue was overwhelmingly in the public interest but the committee chair, the ANC’s Nyami Booi, sought to close the meeting to the media and public.
Immediately, Idasa raised alarm bells, as did opposition parties. I penned a very swift letter to Booi, demanding that in terms of the constitution, the meeting be opened. No response was received. Idasa then released the letter as part of a media statement. It was swiftly picked up and I received a request from Radio 702 to do an interview about the matter. It provided the perfect opportunity for me to call up the chair, asking him to clarify his position, before I had the interview.
I asked him, "What should I say when I go on radio within the hour? Will the meeting be opened or not?"
Booi was caught off guard and to his credit, said: “Say it will be open!” And that was that.
Attending the public enterprises committee meeting that day in May 2017 was what I, and many civil society colleagues, had been doing for years. The strength of our democracy depends heavily on unfettered access to parliament. There is no substitute for being in the room. It has been my staple over many years as a “parliamentary watcher and analyst”, though perhaps less so since leaving Idasa.
This meeting had all the ingredients to make the atmosphere somewhat tense. Then president Jacob Zuma and his ministers who were seen to be facilitating state capture were increasingly coming under fire. And Gordhan himself was still a man scorned and angry after his axing at the hands of Zuma.
That day, Gordhan’s former colleague, Lynne Brown, minister of public enterprises, was being grilled for irregularities at Eskom. She was accompanied by the compromised board. The committee had summoned Brown to explain the controversial and confusing reinstatement of Molefe as CEO. To say the reinstatement was extraordinary is an understatement. The reasons given for his return shifted multiple times.
At first we heard Molefe had been spirited back to Eskom after a brief and opportunistic stint as an MP because he had not actually resigned in November 2016. This despite the fact that Molefe himself had held a tearful press conference announcing his resignation and Brown had accepted it that month. After a storm of public criticism, this version changed and the public was then told he had taken early retirement instead. And then, without pause, we were given version three: Molefe might have taken unpaid leave.
Brown, flanked by the Eskom board and its chair, Ben Ngubane, told the committee that hers was an honest mistake. The board had misinformed her and at all times she believed Molefe had resigned. It all had the whiff of a cover-up.
Brown is a curious character who could seem pure as the driven snow and put on an air of completely innocent innocence in the face of allegations of “state capture”. She had entered into a difficult sparring match with the committee that day, but unsurprisingly knew nothing, remembered nothing and couched all denials in inflated, rather pompous language. She appeared to be someone who had nothing to hide, despite all the evidence in the public domain that suggested the contrary.
Glaringly, Khulani Qoma, the spokesperson for the Eskom board, for example, had claimed to the parliamentary inquiry into state capture in November 2017 that he had been told by acting board chairman Zethembe Khoza that action against certain executives in Eskom would likely be stopped since “Brown reports to the Guptas”.
There was a moment during the interaction between Brown and Gordhan when the hostility between the two could be palpably felt: Gordhan, angry; Brown, arrogant and feigning ignorance. Gordhan knew where all the skeletons were hidden. He knew what the board ought to have been doing and what they were not. In one heated exchange, during which Brown was doing what she does best — deflecting — Gordhan looked her straight in the eye and said: “Let’s not fool ourselves; we all know what’s going on here.”
He continued: “The public is becoming increasingly aware that you are abusing state property and state resources in the name of yourselves and not in the name of the public. This is about capturing Eskom for the benefit of the few, that’s the reality.”
Gordhan asserted further: “Worse still, what South Africans are increasingly worried about is that we’ve reached a stage in managing governance in SA where there are a significant number of people in bureaucracy and elsewhere who are taking a view that says: ‘I don’t care if you know what I’m doing; I don’t care how many reports the public protector or anyone else provides because I am protected.’ The question is, by whom and at what cost and how will history record your role ultimately in this regard?”
One could hear the proverbial pin drop. Gordhan pulled no punches.
• This is an edited extract of Judith February's new book, Turning and Turning, a snapshot of her 12 years at Idasa and the issues tackled. These included work on the arms deal and its corrosive impact on democratic institutions, Idasa’s party-funding campaign, which February helped lead, as well as work on accountability and transparency