William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Farlam to Eskom: Finding the truth or hiding it

The commission of inquiry is one of the most useful tools in the politician’s toolbox. 
In the Westminster system of government it developed as a mechanism for government to seek opinion, advice and information from outside the narrow confines of the civil service. It soon grew into a way to build public trust by addressing issues of great importance, free from party political bias and political interference from the administration of the day. 

However, the word “inquiry” can also be totally misleading and inaccurate. Correctly deployed by a Machiavellian government or organisation the inquiry is perfect for stifling debate, neutralising rivals, muddying the water, hiding the truth, scapegoating the innocent, protecting the guilty, and playing for time. 

Even under the best of circumstances, when it is a judicial inquiry conducted in public, it can be difficult to get to the truth in the face of intransigence on the part of officialdom. Judge Ian Farlam’s inquiry into the police killing of 34 striking miners in 2012 sat for two years, trying to pick its way through a thicket of SA Police Service (SAPS) evasion, distortion, missed deadlines, and apparent misinformation.

Whatever the findings of the Farlam Commission – its report will be handed to the president in the next week – at least the exhaustively reported upon public hearings mean that South Africans have been able to reach their own conclusions as to what really happened.

For example, National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega gave an abysmal, shifty, performance, answering almost every question from the judge with the refrain: “I can’t remember.” When closely questioned on a crucial SAPS planning meeting of senior police commanders the day before the killings and whether the risk of bloodshed had been discussed, Phiyega’s memorable and chilling response was: “I’m not able to give that kind of pedantic detail.” 

The apartheid government’s use of commissions to hide rather reveal the truth has been adopted with enthusiasm by the African National Congress. Former president Thabo Mbeki used inquiries cannily to neutralise rivals and to smother critics. The Seriti Commission into corruption in the 1999 multibillion arms procurement deal has been running since 2011 and many of the ANC ministers and officials suspected of involvement have died or retired and faded into obscurity. Truth is not what it is seeking.

For tricky politicians the best type of inquiry, of course, is the internal one where you can more easily dispense with impartiality. Last week Eskom’s government-appointed board suspended the power utility’s chief executive and three other executives, and announced an internal inquiry to look into poor generation capacity, cash flow issues and “other problems”. 

Eskom chair Zola Tsotsi was quick to start laying down the usual smokescreens. This would be a “fact finding” inquiry and there was no suspicion of wrongdoing by the executives, although if the inquiry found wrongdoing, this would be “attended to”. “It’s a suspension only in a way that the inquiry can happen without any influence. There is no sinister or hidden agenda by the board.”

When the inquiry was initially announced, it appeared that Tsotsi would head it. Since then the government has backed down and upgraded the internal inquiry to one with outside appointees, although it seems it will not operate with public hearings.

It is difficult to see how Public Enterprises Minister Lynne “There is no Eskom crisis” Brown can credibly avoided appointing a full judicial commission of inquiry with the power of subpoena. The scale of Eskom’s failure and the fact that the Eskom board, which Tsotsi has headed for the past four years, presided over that failure, means that any internal inquiry will be widely perceived to be a cover-up or hatchet job.

In reply to a Democratic Alliance parliamentary question, it transpires that recently resigned Eskom chairman Brian Dames earned R7.9-million last year. The 10-person executive team, with the connivance of a supine board, paid itself R46-million in “performance” bonuses over the past three years.

The new chief executive, Tshediso Matona, hasn’t been around long enough to get a bonus. But in the past three years two of the suspended executives, the Head of Capital Projects Dan Marokane and Finance Director Tsholofelo Molefe, picked up R5.5-million and almost R7-million respectively. If these executives are so useless, why were they getting performance bonuses, approved by the Eskom Board?

It is only through an independent and public inquiry that we will ever get clarity as to why Brown, who last week spoke of her “concerns, fears and frustration” about what is going on at Eskom, took so long to realise there was a problem. So, too, the inability of the Eskom board to carry out properly its oversight role.

A full commission of inquiry would actually deliver useful insights, rather than what appears to be happening now: to scapegoat four executives. No matter hope hopeless these individuals might be responsibility for Eskom’s failures extends far higher up the political food chain.

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