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Former Prasa CEO Lucky Montana: “I’m innocent”

A feisty Lucky Montana insists he is going to have the Public Protector’s report on Prasa reviewed as it contained serious false allegations against him and the previous board. He is very critical of political parties, including the ANC for criticizing him personally, and for some who’ve laid criminal charges against him. Montana says the report may have damaged him but has given him renewed reason to fight for his reputation. – Tim Modise

Here on our Transformation section of Biznews, I’m joined by Mr Lucky Montana, the former CEO of Prasa who’s in the news. Lucky, welcome (for all the wrong reasons, if I may say). It’s your reputation here that’s on the line.

Indeed Tim, but I think that over time we should be able to correct all of that.

And you feel very strongly, I can tell, by the number of interviews that you have given. Tell me why. You’ve been very outspoken. Generally, when the Public Protector publishes a report of this nature, those implicated (and are the point of reference) in the report tend to stand back but in your case, you are fighting back – so it seems to me.

Indeed, Tim. What I think the Public Protector Advocate Madonsela has done is that she has trampled on my dignity. I think that she’s made some very strong findings on her own investigation and I’ll tell you that I do not agree. In fact, from a factual point of view, there are many inaccuracies in her report, which I think are not right. Not only those where I am involved but I think generally, with the report, but I think where she made specific findings against me – I actually think that those are not reflective of the real situation that was there. I can go on, with a list of different things, so I think she added in this report. I think she got it wrong and I feel that history is on my side, and that is something I want to take on. I think I’ve got a duty to also clear my name but I want to also convey, and it is something I’ve said that Prasa, which I led, over a period of almost a decade – it is a different organisation, to the one that I had. I think there’s an issue about what Prasa is, and what it has been doing.

I think that is very important that South Africans have a very clear sense. Everyone, when they read about Prasa they say ‘it’s Eskom – it’s Prasa, or it’s SAA’ but I feel that it is very important that we have a more balanced view of what Prasa has been doing over the past nine years. I think that the Public Protector Report distorted that picture in a very significant way, so there is a personal side but there is an issue about the public discourse (that I want to pursue), so I think the Public Protector is wrong. I think that, as I said, she’s not a judge. I don’t think that she can make those types of statements that she has made, and if she feels very strongly. In the way that I feel very strongly then the only way, in terms of the law and in terms of her own act, is actually to test that in a proper court of law, so that is what I am going to do.

And you are very confident that you will be vindicated in such a setting.

Tim, let me tell you of course at court it depends on your strategy. It depends on how you present your facts and are you able to convince the judge in a court environment, but I was confident. I thought I’d done more than enough to convince the Public Protector that most, if not all of the allegations made, were either baseless. They didn’t deserve any merit to warrant us even spending resources over a period of three years looking at them. I thought some of them were defamatory. Remember, when they were first made, most of them were saying that ‘suspend the CEO because there’s a lot of corruption around it’. I think that she has continued on that. She had reinforced that particular narrative and I think I have a duty, not only to myself, not only to my family but also to the people of South Africa, to make sure that we change that perception.

Well, the situation is getting worse, it appears to me, firstly, it is reputational damage. Then secondly, the political parties have waded in on this matter. It’s a matter of public interest. Some are saying that they are going to lay criminal charges against you even the ANC (the governing party in the country) says that the board and the Minister should pursue this matter further. What is your response?

Let me not respond to them individually, Tim, but I must say that on the one hand I understand the responses of the political parties. Particularly in a society, we want to gender a culture where we don’t tolerate corruption. From that perspective – I understand them. I think that I am extremely disappointed. In fact, I think all political parties have been so opportunistic on this matter because I think that all of them needed to make sure that they familiarise themselves with the report. Most of them, I don’t think, other than listening to Advocate Madonsela that they’ve even read the report itself, to be able to say that. They are actually reinforcing what I’m challenging but most importantly, what disappoints me is that all these parties are in Parliament and parties in Parliament cannot undermine the constitution. I want to make a very bold statement here. These, all the political parties in Parliament have actually, I think in my view, undermined the constitution because they say to achieve their own political agenda, for them to compete now to gain public favour. To be seen to be fighters on corruption but they say that they are going to do that, by allowing a situation where my rights are trampled.

I thought that they would say ‘yes, let’s not tolerate corruption but we also respect the fact that if someone is unhappy that the courts, is where you should be able to do that’. That is in our law and the Law of Administrative Justice – the issue of legal recourse. It is there, in our Bill of Rights and I’m surprised that all political parties would have even lost that kind of a thing. I think that, well I’m hoping that over a period of time, of course I don’t belong to the DA or Cope or whatever, but I am a member of the African National Congress and when I read the statement from my party I was extremely disappointed but I knew it was a wrong statement. I just said look, as unfortunate as it is, as my party, I am hoping that over a period of time there will be a process where the ANC invites me and says, “Lucky, there’s been this kind of findings by the Public Protector. How do we deal with them?” I thought that a statement would come after that kind of a briefing, so I am actually saddened with the fact that the…

I thought they would be a very strong and principled response, but a principled response means taking a very strong anti-corruption line, which I support. Equally to say that the rights that the individual who’s mentioned have, which are enshrined in the constitution, cannot be trampled upon, and I think that the parties have lost sight of a more fundamental principle of our own democracy.

I suppose they would claim their comments were informed by this being a matter of serious public interest and concern, regarding the maladministration and mismanagement that is alleged against yourself, personally and against Prasa, generally.

The jury is still out on this issue. I’ve responded immediately to say that I will not accept the findings. I will challenge them. They, when the statements were made yesterday, everyone knew that all these statements about maladministration, about the collapse of internal controls that are mentioned by Advocate Madonsela. All of them were known to the political parties. In fact, the former CEO of Prasa has stated on record that he is actually challenging them and he wants that report to be set aside. I thought that they should respect that process, and be guided by the outcome of that.

The chairperson of the board of Prasa has also commented on the matter. He was there at the press conference that was held by the Public Protector. His immediate response was that the board has been vindicated. Meaning that they feel that they did the right thing by releasing you earlier than your date of departure, and he says they are now going to take appropriate action, remedial action, as recommended by the Public Protector.

Well, look I think… I don’t expect any support from the board of Prasa. It’s a board that was appointed. It never supported me in the first place. Their reasons, you know I like this situation, Tim, because the board of Prasa said there were no issues between them and me. They felt that it would not be in the interest of Prasa, for me to stay until the end of my particular contract. Now, I don’t see how this particular report vindicates a decision that is completely unrelated. I think that the chairman will probably explain, at the right time, what is the relationship between the two.

Secondly, I think that yes, the board in fact, in my letter to the Public Protector. I stated very clearly that their remedial actions were welcome because those remedial actions, irrespective of how the findings are. They were aimed at ensuring that we strengthen governance in the company, and I think that is something that any responsible business leader, whether in the public sector or in the private sector, would welcome, so I’ve welcomed that. It doesn’t change the fact that on an issue-by-issue basis, I think that the Public Protector got it wrong and I think that those are the issues that I want to take up very strongly.

Let me talk about the board for a second. I’ll come back to the Public Protector. In your response, when I spoke to you, you said the board may regard this as a sharp instrument to use against you but it is actually a blunt instrument. What did you mean by that?

Well, because Tim, you’ll recall that two weeks ago the chairman of the board made the statement to say, “We are waiting for the Public Protector Report. It will actually demonstrate or show us how clean Mr Montana is.” Now, it tells me, firstly that the chairman of the board, firstly had access to the report when he made that statement. I challenge – on what basis would he make that kind of a statement. The only information that he got was the Provisional Report, as well as my submission to the board.

Secondly, I think that if you look at the matter. I think that the board of Prasa consistently, since its establishment, and this I’ve reflected to, when I engage with the Minister of Transport and other Government leaders that they’ve never supported me. When this report was coming, they were searching for reasons to justify their decision to terminate the contract but this Public Protector Report – it can never be. They thought that it would finish me off, so that they see the back of me but I think they’ve made a big mistake, Tim. I’m here and I’m going to fight, both the decision of the board, as well as the Public Protector Report, as it were. I do not accept that. I do not accept the decision of the board. I think that it was unlawful. I’ve given very detailed reasons in the discussions. The Minister of Transport knows that the chairman of the board knows that.

I think that Government leaders know the reasons why I am saying so but the issue is that, yes, they thought that this report would come but I think they regarded this report, as I said, that it was supposed to do that work. Damage me, paralyse me, but in fact, I think that it has strengthened me. If we were talking in an environment of death – this was supposed to be the last nail in the coffin, this Public Protector Report, but let me tell you what it has done. It has actually given life to the corpse.

Now, the Public Protector goes one-step further. She says, “There is actually round two of this.” She has another report coming.

Well, Tim, I think that it actually shows. She mentioned round two on other matters that she couldn’t conclude on. Secondly, she also mentioned the fact that there are other complaints. Tim again that was not discussed with me, I think as an interested party, I would have been notified but even that. I regard it as one of the major violations that the Public Protector has done in my view because you can see that her selection of issues, on what goes to the second report and her general conclusion that she has made. They are very inconsistent and that is part of what I want the court to set aside because I think her decision to do that, and in her own selection of issues, is completely irrational. Secondly, I think that even from the point of view of the Administrator of Justice, getting someone to be heard. These issues that she decided that she wants to do in the second round – I should have been told about them. I didn’t know. I heard about them when she was making an announcement.

Tell me why would the Public Protector then, to your mind, seek to tarnish your name if, from what you are saying is irrational, which implies that she may be malicious in the way that she has handled the whole matter. What would the motive be then on the part of the Public Protector? It’s taken three years for her to arrive at these conclusions.

Tim, I don’t want to attribute motives to the Public Protector. I think that it would be something wrong. With respect, the Office of the Public Protector and the important role it has to play, but we disagree. I’ve disagreed consistently. I listened to her on radio yesterday and she was making statements that I think all of them will be challenged. One of the things that she made consistently was that Prasa either refused to give her information or was hiding information. I want to challenge that because I’ll prove that, as an accounting officer of Prasa, not only did I make submissions to her but I’ve submitted a body of information.

You remember, Tim what is important is that I was responding there may be one or two issues that related to me, personally but all of those issues had to do with Prasa. It may be a transgression that someone committed in a business unit, for example. About the cleaning of stations – it is not done by them. This is done by another division of Prasa, with its own CEO. It will look at all of those things.

Even the way she’s done it. I mean, where she says, “The group CEO,” personally and then she comes to another one, and she says, “Prasa.” Now who is Prasa? There are no individuals attached to those, so there are quite a lot of inconsistencies that are there but I think that she has trampled on my dignity. She has put credibility on the line and I think that no one has the duty to clear that, except myself. Even on the issues that she mentioned. I mean, I heard yesterday people talking about criminal charges. Tim, I’ll tell you now only, and let me use the Zulu word ‘ngamagwala’ – cowards.

I am not going to be intimidated because there is not even a single, based on that report or any other work, even the forensic report that will come. That can point and say ‘Lucky Montana is involved in corruption’ and this I want to deal with, so I’m not going to be intimidated. I’m going to be firm and engage on these issues, as it were, so I don’t want to attribute anything negative to her.

Sure.

But in court, she has to explain her decision and it is either where you acted correctly, the facts speak for themselves. If you’ve ignored those facts you have to explain why you’ve ignored that, and that I will leave to a judge to pronounce on.

Well, looking at the Prasa matter and other reports from State owned enterprises, the impression generally created is that there’s no proper governance going on there. That you, in the case of Prasa, never had the proper corporate governance in place because everything is attributed to you, as the group CEO. What happened there and what’s your view of the way State owned enterprises are reflected on?

Tim, let me first start on, I think we had a very strong board at Prasa. The difference, of course, was that from a strategy point of view there was a lot of convergence between the Minister of Transport, at that time, between the board of Prasa, and between the CEO and the executive management team. That is very important to mention. If we agree, what are the priorities and what are the things that we need to solve? You will see that Prasa, I know that when you read this report you think ‘oh this was a one man show’ but Prasa has clear delegations.

If we talk about tenders you will see, for example that anything over R100m – these billions of Rands have been through the board, and before they were considered by the board they were considered and, in detail, check by board sub-committees, [inaudible: 17:00] procurement to look at all of that. I think that there is good reason for that. That is why this drama is missing the point. You will also see that, within the delegation of authority, the CEOs of the different businesses and executives. They’ve had their own delegations, so the board will delegate to me, and I will delegate it. In those delegations, there are certain things that are the arena for the board, on which no CEO can make a decision. Even the appointment and dismissal of executives – when I had to suspend or dismiss an executive I had to consult the board and say, “For these reasons I have to take this particular action and I think that there’s a problem there.”

I think that we’ve had a very strong dynamic board and that board was led by Sfiso Buthelezi. Anyone who knows him in business they’ll tell you that if there’s someone who is a committed South Africa, is a great South African, but a great businessman who understands and who knows economics very well. That is the man, Tim, who knew my style and if he didn’t agree or he was unhappy with a decision that I’ve made, or how I treat people. Sfiso will not hesitate with someone. Every time he will say, “Well, we are having dinner at my house tonight.” Then I know that there is something that I’m in trouble with, but we managed to make sure that within the company and outside, we present the common vision of what we were trying to achieve. I think we have succeeded in that, so to the contrary. We had very strong governance within Prasa. We had a very strong audit committee that looked at all of these issues.

You know, Tim you won’t believe it. I, at Prasa, have never appointed an executive since I joined there because every time I would recommend to the board, when I identify an executive to be appointed. There has been, I’m not saying… Probably what the people are talking about, our weaknesses, our shortcomings or lack of compliance in some of those issues but they don’t make the fact that this, what I referred to as a ‘wild west’ where there is no law. It is in the jungle where everyone does as they please. I don’t think it is right, so that is the first part I want to put on record.

The second issue, Tim is the people in South Africa, I think the main issue that has been driving State owned enterprises or the debate rather, on State owned enterprises. It has been one that has been driven from a more, early 1990’s thing, about whilst public sector is bad. Private sector is good. You must privatise State owned enterprises because they are not and I think that they are missing the point. Fortunately, I had the privilege to work in the Department of Public Enterprises, as far back as 1990 to 2004, and I was involved in merger work to restructure Eskom, Transnet, and all of these entities, SAFCOL and Denel. Tim, I was involved in all of those things and I’ve gained direct experience.

In 1999, in particular, State owned enterprises were in a very bad state. Financially, they were in a very worst situation. Today we cannot say the same, precisely because most of the State companies have done well. If you look at Transnet, we should be proud because the State strengthened its balance sheet. Eskom, by the way, was not a company that we know it today. Eskom was just simply a commission. It was not structured like a business. One of the key things that we spearheaded as Government, at that time, was to introduce what we call the Eskom Conversion Bill to make it a company. Why were we doing that? Precisely because Government, at that time, realised that to meet the investment requirements for Eskom for an energy generation and all of those things – you need to do that.

When you look at, finally, the financial situation, particularly with what is happening today with China and the impact on the market. One of the major roles that public entities, other than the investment in infrastructure, in skills, and all of those things is that they serve as a major buffer, to protect the economy as it were. When you look at the performance of Transnet, as an example, or Eskom, you know the state. You can measure the performance or the level of your economy, so what I would urge South Africans is that let’s have a very informed debate and discussion about State owned enterprises. The old debate or the old, unwinnable debate about either private sector or public sector is not going to help.

As we face challenges in our economy today. There is no doubt in my mind that we require a balance to make sure that there is both public and private sector spending, to ensure that we boost the business confidence, we make the economy work, and we build a prosperous South Africa for all of our people in the region.

I get a sense that you’re upset about the Public Protector’s Report and you are taking it to court. Have we heard the last of Lucky Montana? Is this your death nail?

Not in this lifetime Tim, I think that I’m renewed. I’m energetic. I think this country has given so much to me I’ll give back – I will continue playing the role, whether it’s going to be in the public sector or in the private sector but for me, to do that unhindered, to unlock my own potential, as it were. I need to ensure that I remove this albatross around my neck, as it were. The Public Protector Report must be cleared. I need to be cleared, and I think that, for me, I’m still young and I have a long way to go in contributing to the democratic South Africa.

Thank you, Lucky.

Thanks very much Tim.

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