Ngubane stonewalls at Eskom inquiry

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PARLIAMENT, March 7 – Former Eskom chairman Ben Ngubane on Wednesday refused to answer allegations that former public enterprises minister Lynne Brown intervened to stop the suspension of the power utility’s former acting CEO Matshela Koko.

Ngubane was grilled by the evidence leader in the inquiry, Advocate Ntuthuzelo Vanara, about witnesses’ claims that he received a phone call from Brown ahead of a board meeting last year that put paid to a resolution to suspend Koko.

Vanara asked Ngubane to be plain about the content of the phone call and whether Brown made sure Koko was given a reprieve.

“What did the minister call to talk to you about? Don’t go around in circles.”

Ngubane replied: “This was a normal call.”

Vanara shot back: “I give up Doc.”

Last year,  Khulani Qoma, the now-suspended spokesman for the Eskom board, told the inquiry he had urged chairman Zethembe Khoza to suspend Koko because of the reputational damage he believed he was inflicting on the company.

Qoma said Khoza fairly readily agreed that it should be done, but cautioned that Ngubane had also wanted to move against Koko but was blocked by the minister.

“He then tells me that actually Dr Ngubane came very close to suspending Koko, but was stopped in his tracks by Minister Brown,” he testified at the time.

He said Ngubane had persuaded the rest of the board that this was the correct course of action, but the Gupta brothers — the family at the centre of allegations of wholesale corruption at Eskom and other state-owned enterprises — were called to inform them of the decision and they called Brown, who in turn called Ngubane and ordered him not to do it.

Vanara on Wednesday reminded Ngubane of Qoma’s testimony, saying: “There is evidence before this committee that you received a call from the minister where the minister instructed you not to suspend Mr Koko.”

But Ngubane insisted: “I don’t know where that comes from.”

He claimed instead that the decision not to suspend Koko was based on the fact that the board had received incriminating information from a whistleblower and that it was illegal to act on that directly without going through a prescribed process.

“He would have taken us to the CCMA and labour court and won,” he said.

Ngubane resigned as Eskom chairman in July last year. Brown was fired from Cabinet by President Cyril Ramaphosa last week. Koko resigned from Eskom last month.

He was also grilled about Brown’s explicit approval for the controversial decision to grant former CEO Brian Molefe early retirement with full pension benefits, though he was appointed for a fixed term of five years. It resulted in a controversial payout of more than R30 million he has been ordered to return to Eskom by the high court.

Ngubane said Molefe’s pay levels were no different from those of previous Eskom CEOs and since the board had received acknowledgement of receipt of a letter to the public enterprises department from its director-general, it proceeded on the basis that “the minister knew what we were doing”.

Brown last year publicly objected to the payout, opting instead to allow Molefe to be briefly reinstated before a ministerial task team ordered that his contract be ended.

When pressed about the perceived waste of public resources at Eskom and the high court’s observation that corporate governance at the entity had collapsed, Ngubane batted away the evidence leader’s questions. He said greed was pervasive in society as general, and judges could only rule on the information available to them.

Democratic Alliance MP Natasha Mazzone returned to Qoma’s testimony and said it spoke of Ngubane being overly protective of Molefe, to the point that Ngubane asked him and Eskom’s then head of legal to accompany him to “give moral support” to the axed CEO.

Ngubane flatly denied that they visited Molefe to console him.

“The only time I met Molefe was after the minister said this thing is untenable,” he said, referring to the pension payout.

He denied that he did so to protect Molefe and safeguard his retirement package. Rather, he wanted to end the impasse and if possible retain his services, he said, because Molefe had prevented a power supply crisis.

“Why should we try to enrich Brian Molefe? The only thing we were trying to deal with was his disgruntlement… so it was a way of keeping him in, of trying to find a way to deal with this.”

– African News Agency (ANA)