Former Eskom chief executive Brian Molefe gives testimony at the state capture commission in Johannesburg. Picture: Veli Nhlapo
Former Eskom chief executive Brian Molefe gives testimony at the state capture commission in Johannesburg. Picture: Veli Nhlapo

Brian Molefe had it all. 

He was smart, affable, connected. A rising star in the National Treasury under Trevor Manuel. He was destined for great things in the public service and could have moved into lucrative private sector positions, had he chosen to do so. 

He found himself advancing rapidly through the ranks as a government troubleshooter. From the Treasury to the Public Investment Corp in 2003, where his success in professionalising the organisation made his star shine ever brighter. 

He moved to Transnet as CEO in 2011 and Eskom in 2015, where he lasted a little over a year before leaving, after then public protector Thuli Madonsela connected his cellphone number to 58 calls to Ajay Gupta, and 19 visits to the vicinity of the Gupta estate in Saxonwold, giving rise to the inebriating myth of the Saxonwold Shebeen.

When cornered about his regular trips to that part of town, Molefe suggested that his visits to the area were because there was a shebeen two streets away from the Gupta mansion. He would later deny ever having visited the shebeen, when the clumsy attempt at deflecting attention from his real business in the area was shown to be preposterous.

Molefe was back on the stand at the Zondo commission this week, adding reams of fresh assertions to the considerable 170,000-plus pages of evidence gathered so far by the state capture commission. His testimony, to the untrained eye, might appear yet another attempt to create a series of red herrings which the commission will be obliged to consider as it wades through years of testimony in an attempt to come up with a report that best reflects the devastating decade of economic mismanagement and larceny that put SA in its current parlous financial state. 

After his Eskom departure, he briefly spent time as an MP between January and May 2017, a decent stretch compared to the 92-hour stint Des van Rooyen spent as finance minister. Ostensibly, he was being teed up to succeed another former high-flyer, presidential hopeful and renowned home-movie maker Malusi Gigaba at the helm of the Treasury. Then questions arose around his acceptance of a R30m pension payout from Eskom, and he quit the legislature, saying he needed to deal with that issue. And now, despite four failed attempts in the courts to overturn an order than he return about R11m apparently illegally paid to him by the Eskom Pension & Provident Fund, there is no public record of his having done so.

Propagandists have long known that human nature is such that we will believe anything if it seems plausible and we tell it to ourselves often enough. Sometimes a simple inference in the right environment can do enough to deflect attention from the real issues.

In January, Molefe sought to draw President Cyril Ramaphosa into the state capture net. 

“He was, in fact, the de facto chairperson of Eskom and de facto chairperson of a de facto board that was outside the company,” Molefe told the commission, perhaps aware that editors were already visualising juicy headlines, as he then accused the president of a conflict of interest: “When the Glencore deal was done in 2012 and he bought shares, he was made chairperson. In 2014 he became deputy president of the country and chairperson of the war room.”

He didn’t say Ramaphosa was corrupt. He just planted the idea that he might be.

It’s a good strategy, if it works. 

You and I have no idea whether the president used his influence or allowed his influence to be peddled by Glencore, of which he was once a shareholder and director, as it became embroiled in a contractual dispute over coal supply and pricing. What Molefe has done is plant the seed of an idea that will take hold in some quarters. The fact is that Ramaphosa did make a swift transition from business to government when he was appointed deputy president and given the poisoned chalice as head of the Eskom war room. 

Did that affect his judgment and actions? That is for the Zondo commission to figure out. 

At the time he entered politics properly in 2014, Ramaphosa announced that he had sold his interest in Shanduka – the vehicle he used to amass his personal fortune, and that his assets were being put in trust to avoid any suggestion of conflicts which might arise in the future. 

This week, however, Molefe, under questioning, toned down his assertions: “My postulation was that they were hoping to use Mr Ramaphosa’s position to help them negotiate out of the pickle,” he told deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, admitting he had no evidence to support his assertion. “I’m not saying I know he peddled influence, but the situation was likely to arise."

Alternative facts

Former DA leader Tony Leon remembers, in his new book, Future Tense, how he and his wife, Michal, were at Fugitives’ Drift Lodge preparing for a full-day tour of the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift when Molefe, then at Transnet, flew in by helicopter. Visitors to the lodge are regaled with tales of heroism and blood gleaned from impeccable research from multiple sources on both sides of the conflict. The short version of the historical events is that the British army suffered its greatest Victorian-era humiliation at Isandlwana and redeemed some of its dented pride overnight at nearby Rorke’s Drift as a small force of about 150 British soldiers, many wounded and sick, successfully repelled repeated attacks by a force of about 3,000 Zulu warriors. 

After listening to the guide, Doug Rattray, who took over his father David’s storytelling mantle at the lodge, Leon recalls Molefe saying: “I have a different version of events; I have read other versions of this history, and as I understand it, the Zulu detachment allowed the British at Rorke’s Drift to win in order to save face after their large defeat at Isandlwana.”

Rattray, somewhat taken aback, asked Molefe to please provide the sources so that he could include the narrative in his storytelling. 

Leon doubts such evidence was provided. “I am confident,” he writes, that Molefe never sent any such history to the lodge, but he wouldn’t have deemed it necessary, anyway, whether it existed or not. He had his own “facts”.

That’s just one, among many reasons, Molefe is just so hard to believe. 

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