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By Moepeng Valencia TalaneCW Voices

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan recently told Parliament in a written response to a question that state entities under his watch for the past five years, which include Eskom, Transnet and South African Airways (SAA), had lost over R200-billion to corruption in that period. He has also announced his retirement from active politics, declaring that he will not return to Cabinet after the 29 May elections.  

While there are some wins that can be attributed to Gordhan’s tenure from 2018 to date, the controversy surrounding the SAA-Takatso deal saga that hangs over his head as he bows out, and his very public spat with the parliamentary committee on public enterprises which probed allegations of his interference in the deal, will form part of his legacy.

Gordhan is no stranger to the importance of Parliament’s governance structures, having been part of them since the first legislature of the democratic dispensation in 1994. Why then, has he not navigated the controversy around the Takatso matter with the exemplary conduct of someone with such vast experience?

Long-standing career

The minister is credited with being an instrumental participant in the pre-1994 pro-democracy negotiations that ushered in the inclusive Constitution that we now enjoy as the foundation of our democracy. He also has a long-standing career in government, having held the reins at the South African Revenue Service and several cabinet positions thereafter.

But to demonstrate where he may have fallen short, it is perhaps helpful to cast our memory to a more recent example of where Gordhan played a role in upholding the principles of the Constitution. In 2018 he formed part of the Eskom inquiry that was established in Parliament to uncover what went wrong at the power utility during the state capture period. The politics surrounding the process notwithstanding, it revealed the necessary evidence that the Zondo commission, to which the inquiry’s report was handed, would explore further to arrive at findings in its state capture probe.

As part of the inquiry, Gordhan was tasked, along with his fellow committee members, to interrogate the allegations brought before Parliament of irregularities that were happening at Eskom and provide a report thereafter with recommendations on a way forward.

In the report, the members acknowledge the difficulties that they were met with in their task, including the legal challenges from implicated parties, as well as the concerns of safety to themselves and to witnesses who appeared before it. In other words, the report records the hoops that the committee had to go through to achieve a conclusion that would help the course of uncovering state capture. 

The terms of reference of the inquiry were clear, and it looked into several topics of interest, including the appointment of board members and alleged procurement irregularities, among others.

The report clearly stated the mandates of the executive leadership of Eskom, its board, and the oversight role of the minister of public enterprises. It emphasised that the minister was, “along with the Board, accountable to Parliament, which executes its oversight role by reviewing financial and non-financial performance and critically assessing various reports, including the integrated report, annual financial statements, and the audit reports of the Auditor-General. Financial performance is reviewed by the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, and broader performance is overseen by the Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises. The Committee may also consider the broader social and economic impacts of Eskom’s level of performance.”

In a previous circumstance, Gordhan had been unceremoniously fired from his Cabinet position as finance minister by former president Jacob Zuma in 2017. His dismissal and that of Mcebisi Jonas, his deputy at the time, over a controversial intelligence report that would later be dismissed as hogwash, would be tangled into the state capture agenda news cycle that represents the latter years of the Zuma administration. While Gordhan used the opportunity to prime himself and Jonas as not only victims of a corrupt regime, and the faces of defiance against such corruption, he publicly declared that he would continue the good fight by not resigning as a member of Parliament. This public image, and the 2019 anti-corruption campaign ticket of Cyril Ramaphosa would influence his return to Cabinet in such an important role.

In the hot seat

Public enterprises is no doubt a complex field of government, one that has been reviewed on several occasions in the democratic dispensation when solutions were sought on the best model for managing it. The state-owned entities (SOEs) that fall under this portfolio have been riddled with one governance challenge after another for years, and it featured as the centre of state capture in the evidence reviewed by the Zondo commission. It is likely to remain a headache for whomever ends up taking over the ministry post elections.

One former minister of public enterprises gave insights before the commission into how the portfolio should not be run. Barbara Hogan testified that the minister in the portfolio must always respect the boundaries offered by the constitutional mandate of the position, and avoid interfering in the operations of each entity they oversee. They must rather consume themselves with guiding the leadership of these entities in their strategic endeavours to see positive results. Another important aspect of their position is, of course, the ability to subject themselves to accountability for how these strategic endeavours are managed. It sounds simple: guide those at the helm of SOEs on how to drive their agendas, and subsequently account to Parliament when they succeed or fail in this undertaking.

The shoe is now on the other foot, and Gordhan has demonstrated what can only be perceived as unsuitable behaviour before the very parliamentary processes he subjected current and former Eskom leadership to during the inquiry days of 2018.

The public enterprises committee investigated allegations of his meddling in the SAA deal – in which a 51% stake of the public airline was bought by the Takatso consortium of companies in 2021. Its enquiry into the transaction stems from a protected disclosure to the committee by the former DPE director-general Kgathatso Tlhakudi, dismissed by Gordhan last year for misconduct, in which Tlhakudi claimed the minister’s interference in that procurement process. For months there were disputes over what information the committee was entitled to, and what could be put into the public domain. All of this spilled out to the public domain, as it should, to reveal the awkward nature of processes of accountability between members of the Executive and Parliament.

An indifferent legacy

That probe is now in the purview of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU). The rationale for taking the SIU route, according to committee chairperson Khaya Magaxa, is that the committee was getting no joy from Gordhan in responding to its demands for accountability.

The committee said Gordhan has refused – without substance – to furnish it with documents relating to the deal, which has now been abandoned. Of course the matter of whether Gordhan has been defiant or not is more nuanced than what the public is privy to – as is always the case in politics – but the gist of it is that we as members of the public have been subjected to news headlines suggesting a squaring off between Parliament and a member of the Executive. Gordhan himself testified on this narrative when he appeared before Zondo in November 2018, speaking of how Zuma interfered in the appointment of board members of SOEs and the irregularities behind the nuclear deal that the former president’s administration had pursued without success.

However, Gordhan’s image has definitely taken a knock in his term as public enterprises minister, with SOEs showing regression while plagued by grand corruption and an inability to perform their most basic task: help grow the economy of the country.

His ability to stay in his post, however, is more a reflection of how his political party works, than that of a resilient public servant determined to turn things around. Mariane Merten of Daily Maverick notes in a reflective piece on Gordhan’s public service record that he showed signs of wanting to vacate office in 2022, but was persuaded by Ramaphosa to stay on until after the elections.

Alas, he leaves public enterprises in as poor a state as he found it in 2018, with little notable accountability for the billions lost to corruption – while his own journey in the public service will be marred by the more recent troubles associated with his accountability status.