Lashing out at Necsa’s board the day before it resigned, Mantashe invoked the words of Jesus Christ to assert his authority and vowed to fight those who disrespect him
Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe went on an angry rant against board members of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA (Necsa) this week, threatening them with “resistance” if they treated him like a “small boy”. The minister’s tirade took place in a meeting with Necsa executives and senior energy department officials on Tuesday. City Press has heard a recording of Mantashe’s rant.
The tirade preceded the resignation on Wednesday of the entire Necsa board, with immediate effect. These board members – four in total – had stayed on as their other board colleagues quit last year.
In their joint resignation statement, the four board members said they felt undermined by Mantashe as he valued neither their work nor their efforts to turn around the ailing state-owned enterprise (SOE).
Necsa’s mandate is to promote research and development in the field of nuclear energy. It is one of the world’s largest producers of medical radioisotopes and runs the Pelindaba nuclear power station, situated near Hartbeespoort Dam.
The resignations of Pulane Kingston, Matlhodi Ngwenya, Pulane Molokwane and Bishen Singh leave the company rudderless – just as happened towards the end of 2018, when then energy minister Jeff Radebe summarily fired the board. That decision was overturned by the Pretoria High Court in August last year.
Like other SOEs, Necsa has been bleeding money and has been unstable for years, with boards and executives jumping ship or being fired at a rapid pace.
According to a series of letters that Necsa wrote to Mantashe, dating as far back as November 18 last year, the board sought his “urgent approval” to use funds that had been ring-fenced for decommissioning and decontamination, as well as a proposed cash injection, in order to pay salaries and operational expenses from December 1 2019 to March 31 2020 to cover the projected cash shortfall of R271 million as at October 31 2019.
‘YOU ARE GOING TO GET MY RESISTANCE’
At Tuesday’s meeting, which took place at the ministry’s offices in Pretoria, executives of the cashstrapped company requested a bailout from Mantashe to enable the cash-strapped company to pay salaries and operational costs at month-end. But the minister refused to budge and went on to assert his authority.
Mantashe said he did not want to discuss salaries only. He wanted a solid, long-term plan for the future of Necsa, including the viability of having three different boards – one for the company and one each for its two subsidiaries: NTP Radioisotopes and Pelchem.
He then accused the board and executives of treating him like a small boy.
As the meeting came to a close and the attendees were exiting the minister’s offices, Mantashe referred to a verse from the Bible. “Ndimi inyani [I am the truth], ndimi indlela [I am the way],” Mantashe was heard saying, paraphrasing a verse from the Gospel of John.
In this verse, Jesus Christ tells his followers: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
In the recording, Mantashe could be heard sounding a warning, saying he knew of efforts by the board to lobby President Cyril Ramaphosa to support it, but he was a step ahead because “unfortunately, the president was fully informed of what is happening”.
Mantashe then said people from his region in the Eastern Cape did not take things lying down: “I grew up in Cala. In that area of the world, when people relate to you as a young boy, you revolt. When people just treat you like you are just a small boy, then you are going to resist that with everything you have. That is how your purported board relates to me. They think I’m just a small boy who does not know what he is doing. Now they are going to get my resistance.”
‘GWEDE DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY’
In their resignation letter, the board members said they had not received support from the ministry, despite their efforts to ensure that Necsa was not run into the ground.
They also referred to Mantashe’s utterances that there was “no board” at Necsa, and to the fact that he would also exclude the board in meetings between his office and the SOEs falling under his department.
In the recording, Mantashe repeated that, in his view, Necsa did not have a board because there were only “three” members left – and therefore it was not quorate.
He argued that the fourth member, Ngwenya, had already stated her intention to resign, which he took as final – even though no formal resignation was ever submitted.
“What we are doing is putting together a new board at Necsa,” said Mantashe during Tuesday’s meeting.
“The commitment was that the remaining three will be included, but the behaviour does not tell me that I must keep that promise. You have three members who regularly meet with senior counsel and lawyers, and pretend to be a board. When an entity of state takes a confrontational position with the minister responsible [for it], that institution of the state is at war with itself.”
Mantashe went on to say that Necsa was “asking for many things, and that does not reflect seriousness”.
“As I read what you write to me [in reference to the series of letters addressed to his office by the Necsa board], I do not think you are appreciating how serious your institution is in the country. Not to me, not [to] anybody, but to the country. You behave as if you think that it is just a cash cow to milk. It cannot be. It is an institution responsible for nuclear in the country.”
He said that during one board meeting last month, members had brought a senior counsel along.
“It shows a board that is preparing to litigate against the department,” said Mantashe. “You have no money, but you are paying the SC for sitting in your board meeting. In my books that is reckless … because you feel entitled to the money of the department for sustenance. I’m not going to give you [money] even today because you relate to me in a way that you are putting me on terms.
“And you think that because you are putting me on terms, I’m going to run around. You don’t get that from Gwede. Gwede doesn’t work that way. He does not work that way. You see. You see. You put me on terms and think that I’m going to run around; you will never get that.”
Last week, the board again wrote to the minister, reiterating its November 2019 request. Among the reasons for the financial distress, the board said, was that “Necsa’s fixed costs exceeded the quantum of the government grants received.”
The revenues generated by its two commercial subsidiaries had also declined since 2017, and the fixed costs had been increasing year on year while the government grant had shrunk, added the board.
The board said it had “made several proposals to the minister and the department regarding how it suggests the financial problems of Necsa be dealt with, [and] Necsa has unfortunately not received any financial support nor the requisite approvals to implement the turnaround plan”.
It added: “The board does not have the power (without the consent of the minister and Parliament) to apply for liquidation of Necsa nor to cease operations. It is therefore powerless to stop Necsa from continuing to trade recklessly, and the responsibility for this lies squarely with the minister.”
Mantashe ended the meeting by saying that he would accelerate the process to fill vacant positions in the board, so it was complete. “If that board wants money, that money must go into an institution that looks viable,” he added.
Yesterday City Press received a list of people whom Mantashe may officially appoint to the Necsa board. They include Dr Namane Magau, the board chairperson of NTP Radioisotopes; James Maboa, the chair of Pelchem and a board member of NTP Radioisotopes; nuclear physicist Senamile Masango; David Nicholls, the former chief nuclear officer at Eskom; Joseph Shai, a former Necsa executive; Letlhogonolo Noge-Tungamirai, strategic adviser: human capital at Oracle SA; and Dr Gregory Davids, a senior lecturer at the University of the Western Cape.