Eskom whistle-blower Suzanne Daniels believes her phone was tapped immediately after she first met Gupta family lieutenant Salim Essa in 2015.
“I really think it was because I had been exposed to Salim Essa,” she told City Press
last week in one of a series of interviews with media before taking a three-month break from South Africa in Los Angeles in the US.
She claims that, at work the next morning, her boss Matshela Koko confronted her about people she had spoken to on her cellphone the day before.
One was an old friend and the other was an employee of French nuclear multinational group Areva, who had called her.
“They knew exactly who I was speaking to,” said Daniels.
“I said: ‘How the hell do you know this, anyway?’ He just smirked and said: ‘We know everything.’”
“I just could not comprehend it, but that is what he told me the very next morning. It is probably still bugged,” she said, glancing at her phone, which was lying on the table.
Koko said: “That’s nonsense.”
The former company secretary and legal head of the national power monopoly was summarily dismissed in July after a disciplinary process she describes as a witch-hunt.
“Their theory was that I was the Gupta mastermind at Eskom and the enabler. I said that was preposterous and ridiculous ... It was clutching at straws.
“If it was true, I would not be sitting in a disciplinary,”
Daniels is taking the disciplinary process that saw her dismissed on review in the labour court, where she will argue that she effectively got fired for blowing the whistle on state capture at Eskom.
This is because almost all the charges against her were related to things she revealed during Parliament’s inquiry into Eskom in November.
“I am arguing that I was fired due to my protected disclosures,” she said.
Those disclosures go beyond the verbal testimony she gave about key Eskom controversies, including former chief executive officer (CEO) Brian Molefe’s R30 million pension payout, the Optimum coal deal and the McKinsey/Trillian contract for R1.6 billion.
Daniels is already in the US helping her daughter settle into film school, but will return for her day in court, she said.
Bad guys still in charge
Eskom has not turned the corner at all, Daniels maintains. It is not enough that CEO Molefe and chief financial officer Anoj Singh were replaced.
“I don’t think they cleaned house. The executive committee is still the same executive committee that oversaw these issues. The CEO and chief financial officer left, yes, but it is the same operational committee.”
However, she added that “there are lots of good people and clean people in Eskom”.
On the other hand, there are probably a lot of things that still need to be uncovered further down the Eskom hierarchy.
“I don’t think we know everything that happened at Eskom. There are things that can happen at lower levels without board oversight. Eskom is an organisation of 47 000 people. You must look at the different levels – we have layers of executive management. If one looks through that, they have wide powers,” she said.
“I think the Guptas were just more spectacular because it was so daring and unapologetic.”
The culture of capture
Daniels met Essa a number of times and has testified in Parliament about her one jarring encounter with Ajay Gupta in a meeting with Essa, then deputy of energy minister Ben Martins; Duduzane Zuma; and an unknown woman.
She worked for years with key state capture figures at Eskom.
What are they all like?
“They don’t come across as dodgy in
the workplace. They come across as confident, competent, well-liked, well-versed in what needs to be done. It is very difficult to say, ‘that one is a crook’, then, when you get this information, you ask where they had the time to do all this.”
Molefe was genuinely liked in the organisation, she said.
“He definitely had the charisma … he did not come across as a tyrant.”
In respect of Essa, he portrayed himself as having the interests of Eskom at heart. He certainly knew a lot about the Eskom business.
“I think people believed that they were making sound commercial decisions. There was always a rationale. In the boardroom, Molefe and Singh came across as knowing the issues and having the solutions to deal with them. There was no indication of the underlying malevolent motives.”
Daniels’ one run-in with Gupta has stuck with her.
She told Parliament that he had asked about Molefe’s pension and disciplinary processes at Eskom.
He spoke in an heavy Indian accent and mostly communicated via Essa, said Daniels.
“My impression was just that he feels, ‘I run this country’. I was just absolutely shocked that he could so casually speak about these things.”
What shocked her most was the “absolute deference” with which Gupta was treated.
According to her, he was at the meeting in Melrose Arch barefoot, wearing tracksuit pants and a T-shirt, which made the deference showed to him even more startling.
“When the guy speaks, no one else speaks ... They would be very respectful. They would almost bow down to him,” she said.
Daniels said she was sceptical of initial media reports about corruption at Eskom.
She had a kind of Damascus moment in June last year when she took a month’s leave and set out to read everything that had been published.
She downloaded the leaked Gupta emails and started matching them to decisions made at Eskom.
“I came back from that leave determined to blow the whistle,” she said.
“When I came back, I was a lot more circumspect about who I spoke to. The first person I spoke to was my lawyer ... I started making copies of the relevant information.
“I was avoiding most people at executive level because, at that stage, I did not know who to trust. It helped that I worked in a male environment. When they ask how you are and all you say is ‘ok’, that’s that. I just made sure that I had the information to back up anything I would blow the whistle on.”
In the spotlight
Since becoming one of a handful of well-known whistle-blowers to have shed light on state capture, Daniels has had to get used to being recognised in public.
“I have even been asked for my autograph a couple of times – people would walk up and thank me for what I’ve done for the country. I find it hard to answer. ‘You’re welcome’ seems a little trivial to say.”
Despite online trolling forcing her off social media, Daniels said that the positive reception has far outweighed the negative.
But not at Eskom.
There have been messages of support from other former Eskom employees and people on more junior levels, she said. But no one on her pay grade has been friendly.
“There has been a cold shoulder. It is just the old boys’ club.”
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