Lynne Brown: Another 'Captured' Minister?

Brown's "see-no-evil, hear-no-evil" testimony denying knowledge of any wrongdoing was frustrating to watch.

01/12/2017 09:45 SAST | Updated 01/12/2017 12:38 SAST

The Eskom inquiry by the public enterprises portfolio committee in Parliament was an opportunity to see the best of South African politics at work.

The parliamentarians who questioned the minister responsible for state-owned organisations that include Eskom and Transnet gave us hope that there are politicians who are interested in good governance and not afraid to ask difficult questions in order to get to the bottom of the problems that beset our country's embattled electricity provider.

Their questioning of former Eskom chairperson Zola Tsotsi led to crushing revelations that left us with the sense that influence peddling and intimidation are rampant in the state-run organisation. Tsotsi's candid admission that he was pressured –– the word he used was "intimidated" –– seemed to have won the confidence of those questioning him, as well as those of us listening to his testimony.

Minister Lynne Brown –– who, on a good day, looks like she does not suffer fools lightly –– was at pains to suppress her contempt and disdain for the audacity of those questioning her.

Her performance was defensive: she denied any knowledge of wrongdoing and rejected all accusations that she is under the influence of the Gupta family.

The minister, who in her written submission expressed concern that parliament's Eskom inquiry would amount to nothing more than a "kangaroo court intent on reaching predetermined outcomes", expressed her displeasure to the committee members. In her excessively modulated voice, she chastised MPs for taking the revelations made by Tsotsi and the suspended head of Eskom's legal and compliance section, Suzanne Daniels, as fact, and for failing to cross-examine them or request evidence to support their allegations.

Minister Brown's "see-no-evil, hear-no-evil" testimony denying knowledge of any wrongdoing was frustrating to watch, as Brown cowered behind her statutory duties, while limiting her oversight responsibility to guiding the process of procurement, by ensuring that the supply-chain management policy of Eskom –– which is based on South Africa's constitution –– was adhered to.

However, checking the box of whether a process is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective does not reflect the extent of the minister's oversight duties. As the representative of the shareholder, Brown's primary duty is to ensure good governance at the state-owned entity.

Minister Brown has spectacularly failed to exercise effective oversight, especially in the light of the Brian Molefe pension debacle and the fact that there is a real threat of financial collapse at Eskom –– the minister indicated that the electricity giant will only be able to remain a going concern for the next six months.

The apparent "he said / she said" pattern that characterised the hearings was clear, and Brown recognised this herself, when she said that it looked as if she was "lying".

It was Economic Freedom Fighters MP Floyd Shivambu who quoted a Bible verse to remind the minister that she was under oath. He highlighted the fact that the minister's testimony was in complete contradiction to that of Tsotsi, which meant that someone was lying.

What was particularly disturbing ,was the exchange between Brown and her shadow minister, the DA's Natasha Mazzone. Mazzone confronted Brown with the fact that she [Mazzone] had handed the minister a brown envelope with copies of the #GuptaLeaks emails, which Brown categorically denied to Mazonne's face.

What are South Africans to make of this? Have we lost all sense of what truth is?

When my children were young, I used to tell them that in a world where everything is relative to something else, there is an objective truth that does exist. To explain it, I told them that in any situation in which we find ourselves, we must imagine that there is a camera recording whatever is happening and that as far as possible, when we relate to others what had happened, what we say must correspond with what would be played back on that recording.

Thus, if in minister Brown's office there was no "bug"–– as was feared –– but a camera, then the one telling the truth in the parliamentary inquiry will be the one whose version is corroborated by what the camera recorded.

Unfortunately, in life, there are no recordings all the time, and we must depend on the integrity of whoever makes an allegation. With so many people referring to occurrences that minister Brown denies or cannot recall, we are left to wonder whether MP Mazonne, Suzanne Daniels, Zola Tsotsi and Eskom board spokesperson Khulani Qoma are all mistaken –– or whether it is the Minister who is caught in her own reality.

Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan said it well, when he called Brown's strategy "denial, denial, denial", despite the fact that evidence of impropriety and reckless mismanagement at Eskom abounds.

I am sure I am not the only South African who has been left with a sinking feeling that minister Brown was less than candid and utterly insincere.

Brown seems to lack knowledge about just about everything that is happening in the state-owned electricity company. Her fear of over-reaching seems to have rendered her completely ineffectual and impotent.

Despite Brown's attempts to reassure MPs and South Africans that her hands are clean and that she is blameless, her denials are not credible. There are so many allegations contradicting her testimony, as well as evidence that Eskom is about to implode, that at the end of the day the only conclusion we can come to is: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.

Considering all things, we must conclude that minister Brown seems to be less than independent; she seems captured.