Siyabonga Gama: I stayed over in Dubai to buy a dress
The former CEO of Transnet has downplayed the significance of his meeting with Gupta associate Salim Essa in Dubai in 2016.
Former Transnet group CEO Siyabonga Gama. Picture: ANA
Former group chief executive officer of Transnet Siyabonga Gama returned to the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture on Monday, where he began by expressing defiance at his detractors and protesting that there had never been anything untoward in his relationship with the Guptas.
He began by reading parts of a prepared statement that effectively accused the Popo Molefe-led board that ousted him in 2018 of being incompetent and that he had been targeted because of his decision to challenge the grip of established mining companies on Transnet’s operations.
He also rejected Molefe’s earlier assertion that he was one of the three “architects of state capture”, saying Molefe had provided no evidence of this.
On the contrary, he had been appointed on merit and not through the interference of then public enterprises minister Malusi Gigaba, Gama protested.
After Gama’s statement concluded, commission evidence leader Anton Myburgh dived straight into his examination of Gama’s past by asking him if he had been invited to the Gupta family’s much-publicised and controversial wedding hosted at Sun City in 2013.
He answered, simply, “no”.
The Dubai trip
Myburgh then turned to a trip Gama had made to Dubai in January 2016. Gama claimed the Dubai visit was only incidental to him going to Davos, Switzerland, via Dubai, to make a presentation at the World Economic Forum as part of a South African business and government delegation.
He said he stayed over in Dubai for a day or two on his return journey and merely had a “brief meeting” with Gupta lieutenant Salim Essa at the Oberoi Hotel on the Saturday afternoon of 23 January 2016.
Essa had made the hotel booking for him. Gama told the commission that he paid for his own accommodation, though.
Their meeting centred on Essa’s plan to create a “majority black-owned management consultancy”. At the time, these plans were still not finalised. Gama said that he later realised that “[controversial Gupta-linked consultancy firm] Trillian came from this”.
“Most of the consulting firms we have are largely international … not South African,” said Gama, adding that Essa’s vision was to create a black-owned firm with capacity to take on large consultancy assignments in South Africa.
“I suspect that the evolution [was] from Regiments to Trillian [for Essa] … I suspect he may have been behind Trillian as an owner … remember he was from Regiments.”
Gama said the company names “Trillian and Regiments” had not specifically come up at their meeting and Gama had not been aware at the time that Essa was involved with Trillian. He became aware of it later, though, towards the end of 2016.
The object of their meeting, he said, was for Essa to “feel out” whether a big state-owned company such as Transnet might be willing to use the services of such a local consultancy firm.
Gama said no commitments were made in Dubai.
“He was sounding me out … would we look at such a consultancy going forward?”
Gama told Essa that once Essa had further shaped his ideas about his consultancy they could discuss it further, but that “in principle” Gama did not like using consultants. He preferred to build internal capacity.
“We had already paid too much money to external consultants.” He said consultant payments needed to be made only for specialist skills.
Myburgh pointed out, however, that at that time Transnet had already done some business with Trillian, inter alia relating to “the club loan” with Trillian, which Gama confirmed.
A payment had already been made to Trillian in December of 2015.
Gama said no mention of this work had been made at their meeting. He pointed out that up until then, most of Transnet’s dealings had been with Essa’s company Regiments.
Gama told the commission that the meeting came about because Essa “must have called me because I intended to stop over in Dubai … my biggest problem was that my office was still arranging for hotel accommodation”.
He said he decided to rather stay over and do shopping in Dubai to purchase a matric dress for his daughter.
Essa arranged the hotel booking “during the course of our discussion … I told him I wasn’t going to stop over for a long time. He told me he could book me into a hotel in Dubai.”
Gama laughs off Singh’s testimony
Myburgh then asked Gama to respond to the evidence of former Transnet chief financial officer Anoj Singh, who had responded to Gama’s testimony that he had seen Singh and Essa together in Singh’s office in July or August of 2015, where Essa had asked for “a meeting with you … you said he could get your contact details from Mr Singh … this was essentially the background to how you came to visit the [Guptas’] Saxonwold residence”.
Singh subsequently told the commission that this had never happened and Gama had “made it up as a convenience to explain how it is you came to go to the Saxonwold residence”.
Gama laughed in response: “No, no. There is no convenience or anything to do with Saxonwold in relation to this meeting. I met with Mr Essa and I asked Singh to give Essa my number to have a meeting with me. That was the long and short of it.”
Gama met Essa four times in total, with the third meeting in Dubai and the last “casually at a restaurant”.