William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Madonsela’s challenge: ‘So, are you feeling Lucky, punk?’

Lucky Montana, former chief executive of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), this week accused Public Protector Thuli Madonsela of having a tendency to “create drama”. He was responding to the findings of her inquiry into Prasa irregularities, which details more than R2 billion in misappropriated funds and lays responsibility at his door.

Whether or not she is a drama queen as alleged, Madonsela certainly has a penchant for wry humour. Her report damning the expenditure of R247 million on supposed security upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla private homestead was titled “Secure in Comfort”. Her long-awaited Prasa report is called Derailed.

Montana was fired by the Prasa board last month. This followed upon a series of exposés in Rapport – unrelated to the 37 complaints investigated by the Protector – which claimed irregularities in a R51 billion tender for passenger coaches, as well as that the new locomotives bought from Spain at a cost of R600 million, were of the wrong height for safe travel on SA’s rail network.

Montana should consider himself, umm, Lucky. Imagine what wicked fun Madonsela could have had with the claim that the ex-CEO improperly took himself and “10 female companions” on an overnight jaunt on the luxurious Blue Train, flying back on SAA at a cost of R170 000.

Gallo

Lucky Montana (Gallo)

Montana denies the allegation and in response to her request for his diary, “argued that Prasa uses an electronic diary and … these automatically delete entries of the preceding years”. After scrutinising the photographic evidence provided by the complainant, Madonsela concluded that it was “inconclusive” and deferred her finding, to be dealt with in her second report.

One must hope that Montana, who says he will contest the Protector’s report “even in the highest courts”, will muster a ringing rebuttal of the claims. Maybe Montana, who a few years back hired bodyguards after threats against his life, could for example argue that he was merely emulating the late, great Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had a detachment of Amazonian women protecting him?

If Gaddafi could travel the entire world with a bevy of killer chicks, why shouldn’t the head of Prasa go on a choo-choo to Cape Town with fewer than a dozen? As long as they were chosen according to public service regulations, to accurately reflected SA’s racial demographics, of course.

Madonsela’s inquiry, like most of her office’s investigations, follows on whistle blower alerts from within the organisation. These often are in response not to outrage at public corruption but rather in response to a perceived personal injustice, such as being excluded from the feeding trough, or being sidelined from promotion because of cronyism.

What should worry SA most about the Prasa matter is that malfeasance on this level for so long went undetected by internal controls and external supervisory mechanisms. While one appreciates the magnitude of state failure and corruption confronting the Auditor-General’s office, it is in retrospect incomprehensible that the AG gave Prasa nine consecutive clean audits, up to and including last year.

That despite the fact that in 2010 a Deloitte audit uncovered an R8.1 million fraudulent transaction. Prasa took no action nor did the police, despite the identities of those involved being known.

And it is not only the AG who should be embarrassed. Also in 2010, the National Treasury was asked by Prasa for a R1 billion injection to cover the integration of the Shosholoza Meyl service, transferred from Transnet. Treasury coughed up R500 million, but despite the money never being used for its intended purpose, the government simply ignored the irregularity.

Madonsela’s report has been met with predictable political hyperbole. Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane says the Prasa scandal is “bigger than Nkandla”. He is mistaken and possibly a little naïve.

Nkandla is a scandal unrivalled in our post-apartheid history. Not because of the amount of money involved but because Zuma is willing to defy and potentially destroy a cornerstone of SA’s constitutional democracy – the office of the Public Protector – and his supine African National Congress colleagues are going along with it.

It is likely, too, that the levels of corruption and chicanery uncovered at Prasa are matched or exceeded at other state-owned enterprises. There are at least 130 state-owned enterprises in SA, including biggies like Eskom, SA Post Office, SA Airways, Alexkor, Denel, Transnet, Telkom, Airports Company, PetroSA, and the National Lotteries Board. The potential for looting is mind boggling.

Prasa is important not so much for the scale of the wrongdoing uncovered by the Public Protector, but the fact that it took place under the noses of the AG, the Treasury, and the supervisory committees of Parliament. It is reasonable to conclude that hundreds of billions of rands in taxpayer funds are being stolen and wasted in the state-owned enterprises. Unfortunately, those who should care most – the voters – mostly don’t seem to give a damn.

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