How the Guptas got hold of Eskom

From mysterious edicts delivered via anonymous email to clandestine meetings at Melrose Arch, the testimony given to the Zondo Commission on the relationship between Eskom and the Gupta family belies a complex web of influence.

The most recent Eskom whistleblower to appear before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture is former Eskom head of legal Suzanne Daniels.

Prior to this, former Eskom board chairperson Zola Tsotsi spoke about the Gupta family’s influence over operations at the state-owned power utility.

During her testimony, Daniels spoke about how she was offered a bribe of R800 million, how an anonymous email address linked to the Gupta family issued orders to Eskom executives, and how she and Eskom leadership had several encounters with Ajay Gupta and people related to him, during one of which she was offered a bribe of R800 million.

One of the first issues addressed was the allegation of Gupta interference in Eskom board matters, which was demonstrated by leaked emails which were sent by an email address known only as “info portal”, with the sender referred to as the “businessman”.

This email address is suspected to be linked to Gupta associate Salim Essa, and Daniels’ first encounter with its ability to interfere in Eskom management was she received an email from former Eskom chairperson Dr Ben Ngubane which told her to draft documents for a board meeting based on those sent to Dr Ngubane from “the businessman”.

This document was sent to numerous state-owned enterprises with the following command:

“Urgent request to approve the suspension of 20 contacts and/or commercial relationship with Mail & Guardian, City Press, and Sunday Times on a Round Robin introduction on the 28 September 2015.”

“The chairperson received the letter from the Minister of Public Enterprises, enclosing the letter from the chairperson of Transnet and the resolution of the Transnet Board.”

When previously pressed on the identity of the person behind this email address, Ngubane maintained that it was Richard Seleke, the former director-general of public enterprises.

However, when it was pointed out that the email address in question was sent in September 2015, two months before Seleke was appointed as director-general, Ngubane conceded that it possibly did not belong to Seleke.

Gupta influence and attempted bribe

In her testimony, Daniels said she was once called to a meeting by then Eskom acting group executive for technology and commercial Matshela Koko.

Also present at the meeting was Gupta associate Salim Essa, who asked Daniels for legal advice on suspending four Eskom executives, including Koko himself.

Daniels said the inclusion of Koko in the executives to be fired struck her as a “smokescreen” to hide his involvement in corruption at Eskom.

She was again contacted by Salim Essa in June 2017 regarding the suspension of Matshela Koko, who was booted from Eskom due to a conflict of interest he had not declared.

Daniels said she attended a board meeting where she had said she did not support the return of Koko to Eskom.

She added that while she was filling up her vehicle at a petrol station afterwards, a Maserati pulled up next to her. Inside of the sports car was Salim Essa, who asked her to pull over.

Essa then asked her why she was not supporting the return of Koko to Eskom, to which Daniels replied that the board would be derelict in its duty if it allowed Koko to return.

“The next minute, and I do not know the precise timing, it happened quite quickly, the next minute he says to me, I will offer you R800 million if you help us and we will do whatever you say,” Daniels said.

She said she refused the bribe and left the petrol station.

Following this, Daniels was invited to a meeting regarding the fate of Molefe’s pension funds following his dismissal – this meeting was allegedly attended by Ajay Gupta, Duduzane Zuma, and then-deputy public enterprises minister Ben Martins.

She said she answered a question from Ajay Gupta on Eskom’s legal stance on the matter, to which Gupta replied that once Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was in power, this would not be a problem any longer.

“He said this matter would be easy to deal with when Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma comes into power, and I realised at that moment that whatever scepticism I had about the Guptas’ influence, I did not need any more evidence,” Daniel said.

Daniels was dismissed in 2017 after 11 years at the state-owned enterprise.

Zola Tsotsi meets Essa and the Guptas

In his own testimony delivered over two days earlier this month, Tsotsi spoke of his first meeting with the Guptas in 2014, his subsequent meetings with Salim Essa, and how the Gupta family influenced decisions at Eskom.

Tsotsi said that when Eskom board committee members were being appointed, Essa told him to use a list he had drawn up himself.

Instead, Tsotsi said he compiled his own list of members and sent it to Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown, who then allegedly sent the same list which Essa had compiled and ordered the then-chairperson to follow it.

“It became clear that she was fulfilling other interests. She was at the behest of someone else,” he said.

“She was imposing this list on the board. I did not want to resist that at the time. I thought it was important to keep relations with the shareholder for the company.”

He added that throughout his interactions with the Guptas, he suspected they wanted to take control of the power utility by executive and board appointments.

“I had the impression they wanted people who would serve their agenda. They wanted to capture Eskom,” Tsotsi said.

This culminated in the suspension of four Eskom executives in March 2015, which Tsotsi said he suspects was done to bring in those who would obey the Guptas.

“Knowing that the Guptas were having some kind of a hand in the way things were going on at Eskom, I had the distinct impression that there could be an orchestration here to replace the top layer of Eskom with other people who were associated with the Guptas.”

“One doesn’t have the concrete proof and evidence of these things, but one can associate events as they occur and be able to, as they say, connect the dots, to be able to come to these kinds of conclusions,” he said.

Tsotsi was removed from his position after his fellow board members accused him of misconduct, and he was succeeded by Dr Ben Ngubane.

Now read: Eskom keeps South Africa in the dark

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How the Guptas got hold of Eskom