A bribe by any other name

This article by Rob Rose appeared in BusinessLive on 28 September 2017.

Just Coal’s Joe Singh isn’t the first to claim he had no option but to pay a bribe as the cost of staying in business. It’s a laughable argument
Times are so tough in Jacob Zuma’s shadow state that even men of the cloth have no other option but to pay bribes just for the privilege of staying in business. This is the tale of Pastor Joe Singh, a man who reports say described how his son was “raised from the dead” in 2015 after a near-drowning, who is now arguing implausibly that he is simply another innocent soul led into temptation by the nest of vipers inside Eskom.

Singh is also, in all likelihood, the wealthiest person in Middelburg, a devout industrial and farming town in Mpumalanga of less than 300,000 residents. It has been around since 1864, longer than Joburg.

Besides running the nonprofit Kingdom Leadership Centre, Singh is the CEO of a company called Just Coal which, until recently, was selling coal to Eskom. But in court papers, Singh says Eskom torpedoed his R8bn contract because of the “personal agendas” of the (now suspended) acting CEO Matshela Koko.

Singh then “donated” R500,000 to the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in March, through its president, Collen Maine, as a quid pro quo for Maine approaching Eskom to find a “political solution” to his woes.

His argument, as the Sunday Times reported, is that he was “forced” to make “certain corrupt deals” — a Zuma-era equivalent of an eye-for-an-eye.

Only, it’s a wafer-thin argument. It not only assumes he has zero agency for what he does, it also implies he is able to mentally partition his day job from his spiritual beliefs in a rather baffling way.

Speaking on Eusebius McKaiser’s 702 radio show this week, Singh was asked if, having paid the money, he then had an expectation that Maine would whisper in Koko’s ear to reinstate Just Coal’s contract.

“Oh, we did have an expectation — that’s for sure. You know, the expectation was that we’d have somebody politically aligned who can deal with Koko.”

(Maine says Singh was simply a good Samaritan.)

Of course Singh is not the first to slip cash to someone he shouldn’t, on the cynical premise that this is how you play the game. He is, however, one of a vanishingly small group to dare to go to court about it.

Singh claims he is an ‘honest, God-fearing citizen that people can respect and look up to’ in Middelburg

Unfortunately for Singh, the Prevention & Combating of Corrupt Activities Act is less accommodating of the notion of an eye-for-an-eye. It says anyone who gives “any gratification” to someone else, so that they act in a way that includes “aiding, assisting or favouring any particular person in the transaction of any business with a public body” is guilty of corruption.

Did he know he was committing a crime, he was asked on radio. “I don’t feel too bad about it,” he said. “The ANCYL says, ‘we can talk to Koko’ and I said ‘OK fine’. So yeah, morally it might not seem right, but at the time, it sounded OK.”

Now, that’s some cognitive dissonance for a pastor.

If you were a Ponzi mastermind, a psychopathic murderer or an audit executive at KPMG, he’s the guy you’d want to be asking for forgiveness.

But then, dissonance seems to be his thing.

In February, Singh took the Middelburg Observer to court to gag it from publishing an article about Eskom’s concerns over Just Coal. Though he failed to stop the article, his affidavit then, seen in the context of his new admission, is stunning for its chutzpah.

Singh says as a pastor, he is “considered to be an honest, God-fearing citizen that people can respect and look up to” in the Middelburg community.

He also climbs upon the soapbox to verily reject the smear that Just Coal had bribed Eskom officials to look the other way, when his company delivered sub-standard coal. “Just Coal has never done this. We have never bribed Eskom [staff], nor have we ever bribed any other officials … that somebody would make this allegation is astonishing to say the least.”

Truly astonishing, it most certainly is.

Yet interestingly, Singh does admit that in five instances, Just Coal was fined by Eskom for providing poor-quality coal. In 2016, Eskom’s Tutuka power station levied fines of R1.9m for two orders, while the Matla plant levied fines of R2.9m for three deliveries.

“There have at times been problems, mostly caused by human error, and we have been penalised. This is not unusual and happens from time to time,” he said.

It’s an interesting revelation, which implies that Eskom may not have acted entirely capriciously.

But the point is, Singh’s Machiavellian reasoning doesn’t wash. There are many others who unselfconsciously howl that they were “forced” to pay a bribe, that they had no other choice. Singh’s inevitable fate will be a rude wake-up call for them. But, as the pastor should know: as you sow, so shall you reap.