State Capture inquiry hears of secrecy around Optimum coal mine sale to the Guptas

Former director general in the department of Mineral Resources, Thibedi Ramontja, on Thursday detailed the secrecy that surrounded the acquisition of Optimum coal mine from Glencore, as he gave evidence before the State Capture Inquiry.

The mine was 2015 bought by a company linked to the Guptas, in a controversial sale that was conducted with the assistance of former minerals resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane.

Ramontja told the commission of inquiry into state capture, led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, that the process of transferring the mine was directly handled from the minister’s office.

Zwane had traveled to Zurich to meet Glencore officials, in what Ramontja believed was active lobbying for the controversial business family. He stated that the purpose of the trip was not clear to him at the time, and Zwane had travelled with the deputy director general and excluded him. 

'Guptas were being favoured'

"I was not very clear about the reasons for the trip, but now when I join the dots, it now becomes clear that the Gupta people were being favoured.

"That is how I see it now," he said.

Evidence leader Vincent Maleka asked Ramontja if he was aware of that Salim Essa was part of the delegation as Zwane’s advisor. He responded that he did not know that person.

Essa is a close business associate of the Gupta family. 

Ramontja testified that the deputy director general later told him he was instructed to stand outside while Zwane met with Glencore executives in Zurich. 

In 2015, Optimum was supplying Eskom with coal under supervision, after it failed to renegotiate the terms of its contract with the state-owned power generator Eskom.

According to evidence presented, a letter had been sent by top former Eskom executive, Matshela Koko, who was pleading with the department of minerals and energy to intervene in the mine saga, pointing out risks to power supply if nothing was done to resolve the Optimum mine operational challenges.

The letter stated that three power stations were at risk of not being able to supply electricity, if urgent measures were not taken.

Zwane was axed as mineral resources minister in February 2018. Optimum Coal Mine, meanwhile, is under business rescue.