Transnet is the one major state-owned entity (SOE) whose reputation has remained relatively strong over the past decade. It did not let SA down disastrously by neglecting its own core business, as Eskom did; and it has not needed repeated state bailouts and guarantees, as SA Airways has.

That said, Transnet hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory. In its reporting, its fondness for emphasising the financial details, as if it were a listed company, over the operational nitty-gritty has tended to obscure that it is arguably an organisation in long-term decline. Transnet grew revenue 1.2% and operating expenses rose 2.3% in the year to March. Profit (which in an SOE should really be regarded as surplus money to be reinvested) was just R393m, compared with R5.3bn in 2015.

It’s true that the rail freight division was affected by lower global demand for commodities and a stagnant SA economy. Discretionary capital expenditure decreased 42% year-on-year, and CFO Garry Pita said revisions would be made to expected capex based on projected demand. The trouble is that most of the capex is in the general freight business, which still fails to break even and regain sufficient traffic from the roads. In essence, when all those fancy new locomotives arrive, will there be any trains for them to pull?

In this light, the red flags regarding Transnet raised in former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s state capture report are highly relevant. Still to be investigated is the apparently excessive and unprocedural Transnet expenditure through companies Regiments and Trillian, with their obvious links to the Gupta family.

This is why Transnet CEO Siyabonga Gama seems to have jumped the gun in demanding an apology from Futuregrowth, which announced in August that it would cease lending to state entities including Transnet, citing governance concerns.

The facts are that Salim Essa — a former business partner of Iqbal Sharma, chair of Transnet’s tender committee until 2014 — has been heavily involved with the Guptas. Essa is a former business partner of Transnet chair Linda Mabaso’s son, Malcolm Mabaso, who is an adviser to mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane (who may have improperly favoured the Guptas’ Tegeta company, according to Madonsela’s report).

Sharma’s name has often cropped up, with investigative journalists amaBhungane reporting how he was in pole position, while chairing Transnet’s tender committee, to benefit from subcontracts in the R50bn locomotive tender. Others on the Transnet board have also been linked to the Guptas. Some of the links may be coincidence, the evidence possibly circumstantial.

But Gama says contracts with Trillian and Regiments have been terminated. Now why would Transnet do that if it was convinced everything was above board?

People like Gama need to proceed cautiously when they demand apologies. Indeed, they might consider offering the apologies themselves.

The same applies to the chairs of SOEs, whose response to the report has been more outraged bluster than cautious humility. Leaving aside the actual transactions that beg investigation, there are more strategic questions about governance: who gets appointed to SOE boards, who has been influencing those appointments, who should have reported transgressions.

There’s no smoke without fire, and it seems not to have dawned on many of those involved that the Madonsela report represents a blazing conflagration that is as dramatic for this government, symbolically, as the one planned by Guy Fawkes in November 1605 when he tried to blow up the House of Lords.

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