16/10/2017 15:53 SAST | Updated 17/10/2017 15:00 SAST

Matshela Koko: Is This South Africa’s Most Bent Public Servant?

Holding the stewardship of Eskom is one of South Africa’s most important public jobs as the utility holds the key to power. Did the Eskom boss serve us well?

Matshela Koko.
Gallo Images / Mail & Guardian / Madelene Cronje
Matshela Koko.

Eskom's interim CEO Matshela Koko on Monday faced the first day of a disciplinary hearing at the electricity utility on a rack of charges related to his actions, which range from bullying to blessing contractors with irregularly awarded contracts and payments worth billions.

Reports in the public domain suggest that Koko has been involved in the potential mismanagement of over R3-billion. This is calculated by:

· An estimated R1.6-billion to the management consultancies McKinsey and Trillian.

· An estimated prepayment of R600-million to the Gupta family's Tegeta coal company.

· Contracts worth just over R1-billion to an Eskom subcontractor, Impulse International, where his daughter was a director.

· He is further accused of cancelling a R6-billion contract to a company that would not pass work and share equity to a fleet of coal trucks he was allegedly involved with.

HuffPost SA has scanned the most high-profile corruption cases in South Africa and Koko faces the highest value of funds touched by graft of any other public servant. In addition, he is in charge of a parastatal that goes to the heart of the economy and to national development, so the impact of his actions is most harmful.

Koko's name is splashed all the way through former Trillian-executive-turned-whistleblower Bianca Goodson's statement questioning contracts between Eskom and McKinsey, which are now set for global investigation. Goodson writes, "It was clear to me that [Gupta family lieutenant Salim] Essa was in contact with Matshela on all matters that related to TMC [Trillian Management Consultancy] and Eskom."

When she had problems with McKinsey, Goodson had a hotline to Koko, who faces disciplinary charges related to the huge payments he sanctioned to both companies. The Eskom boss is among the clutch of South African connections of the Gupta family treated to trips to Dubai and stays at the luxury Oberoi hotel when the effort at state capture was at its height from December 2015 to earlier this year.

When the Gupta family finagled the Optimum mine from Glencore, Koko gave them a midnight prepayment of R600-million the family desperately needed for its foray into big coal and big money. Koko is connected with three different Indian businesspeople -- he is most infamous for his connection to the Gupta family. There are others.

Pragasen Pather of Impulse International also gifted the Koko family with benefits. The interim CEO's daughter, 26-year-old Koketso Choma, was made a director and shareholder at Impulse International, which then made over R1-billion in contracts from Pather's company. Koko claimed ignorance on Choma's shareholding, but he is still facing charges related to this conflict of interest.

Recently, Sunday Times reported that Just Coal CEO Joe Singh alleged that he had paid ANC Youth League president Collen Maine R500,000 to get him to help Koko play nice. Sunday Times reported that Singh paid the money after Koko cancelled a R6-billion coal contract between Just Coal and Eskom.

The cancellation was ostensibly because of the poor quality of Singh's coal, but the businessman hinted that he was punished for refusing to support a fleet of coal trucks associated with Koko and to cut his networks into a business.

Before he became bent, Koko was a skilled and powerful technocrat at Eskom. He has been with the company for 21 years and worked at various power stations.

He started in systems engineering and water treatment plants and then moved to asset centres of Eskom where he assumed responsibility for the power utility's huge procurement budgets.

In October 2015, Koko became the group executive for generation and technology -- the most important portfolio in the company. His biography notes that "since his appointment in this role, the generation plant performance has improved significantly as evident from the increase in the energy availability factor from 70% in October 2015 to 77.7% to November 2016. This improvement is the reason that no load shedding has occurred for almost 15 months."

That may well be true, but South Africa's economic growth hit rock bottom over this period, which means that demand for electricity bottomed out too.

Holding the stewardship of Eskom is one of South Africa's most important public jobs as the utility holds the key to power. The company is also responsible for a significant chunk of the country's national debt, so prudent management is vital to prevent the country falling off a fiscal cliff.

Yet, throughout the period of suspension, Koko has tweeted his support for a massive and potentially bankrupting nuclear deal. And for over a year, he has held back a more green energy future for South Africa by keeping up a propaganda of negative tweets against solar and wind energy.

Under his watch, Eskom failed to sign successive independent power producer contracts and almost killed a renewables sector of great potential.

As Koko faces his biggest test of integrity, it's worth asking whether his support for nuclear is based on what's best for the country -- or what's best for himself.

This article has been edited to correct an error. Joe Singh is the CEO of Just Coal, not Coal of Africa, as earlier reported. We regret the error.