Public Enterprises deputy minister Ben Martins’ appearance before the parliamentary committee inquiring into governance failures at Eskom did not shed any new information into attempts to capture the power utility but affirmed some of the allegations already in the public domain.
Martins denied his alleged involvement with the Guptas and while confirming meeting them about issues related to the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), he said there was no unlawful or malicious intent from his side.
Allegations made by Eskom’s suspended head of legal services, Suzanne Daniels, before the inquiry in November put Martins in a meeting with the Guptas, their business associates Duduzane Zuma and Salim Essa where Brian Molefe’s legal woes were allegedly discussed.
Martins vehemently denied being part of such a meeting and provided evidence in the form of his official diary.
He was attending the funeral of government spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa on the day of the alleged meeting in Melrose Arch in Johannesburg and later attended an ANC national executive committee lekgotla.
Martins however confirmed hearing about the alleged attempts by the Gupta brothers to hijack and influence a process to appoint a manufacturer for the country’s new commuter trains in 2012 and also confirmed convening meetings with Tony Gupta and Duduzane Zuma at his official residence which were also attended by the former Prasa boss Lucky Montana.
Martins argued that when he met Tony Gupta in September 2012, the family was not as notorious as it later became.
“I’m saying that conditions in 2012 and in 2018 are different. Then, at that stage they were responsible for a medium-sized company. In the court of public opinion, they had not been judged as this family that is seen as corrupt but today, the general projection in the public is that they are responsible for corruption. And I say that is a perception, a perception you have to prove the facts, whether they are or not,” said Martins, explaining his decision to meet Tony Gupta.
He said Gupta had called him sometime after his appointment as transport minister and asked questions about the Prasa tender to acquire locomotives as he had an interest in the tender.
“I told him that it was my understanding that the tender process had run its course or that it was about to end,” Martins said.
Following further questions from Gupta about the tender and a threat to challenge the process in court, Martins decided to invite Montana to a meeting at his official residence so that he could provide further clarity to Gupta before Gupta took the matter to court.
“I saw nothing untoward in arranging this meeting between Tony Gupta and Lucky Montana as its aim was to clarify and give answers to the questions that Mr Gupta had posed to me,” he said.
“I did not at any stage ask Mr Montana to unduly, irregularly or illegally assist Mr Gupta. There was no unlawful and or malicious intent on my part in facilitating the meeting.”
Unlike Montana who stated on Tuesday that the Guptas are criminal and were stealing from the state, Martins argued this was a perception.
“I can have an impression of anybody but I would need to substantiate my perception or my view with facts. In regard to them, they have to be charged in a court of law and be found guilty for the crimes they might be accused of. I can’t give a judgment on public opinion. That is a perception currently,” said Martins.
He added: “The members of the Gupta family have been mentioned but the most important thing for me would be for somebody to lay a charge so that there can be a follow up of a court case. I don’t have knowledge of people who have gone to lay charges, perhaps they have done so. It would be important that those cases be expedited so that anybody who has broken the law should be taken to court without fear or favour,” said Martins.
The deputy minister had previously resisted attempts to get him to appear before the parliamentary inquiry, forcing MPs to take a resolution to subpoena him in December.
But National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete apparently intervened and managed to get Martins to reconsider his decision not to appear before the parliamentary process.
Martins questioned the inquiry’s processes, including the role of its evidence leader Advocate Ntuthuzelo Vanara, and also accused the inquiry of failing to uphold the Constitution as far as due process of the law was concerned.