Patrice Motsepe is an enigma but on Transnet he spoke the truth

Patrice Motsepe, chairman, ARM. Photo: Getty Images

IMAGINE sitting in a brainstorming session with Patrice Motsepe, the chair of African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) and erstwhile owner of football club Mamelodi Sundowns? He is the Gatling gun of ideas: one unformed notion immediately followed by another, and another; never quite, though, completing the train of thought. It would be dizzying.

But we needn’t imagine because this is how his mining group’s presentations unfold. Not having attended an ARM presentation for several years, Motsepe sounded to me scattier than ever, although his penchant for name-checking financial celebrities is undimmed. (On Monday, at ARM’s full-year results presentation, he referenced a meeting with Warren Buffett, the world renowned investor. In 2013 Motsepe said he would give away half his wealth in terms of the Bill Gates-Buffet Giving Pledge).

In his introductory remarks, he referred to ARM’s ferroalloys business partner as Mitsubishi, not its actual partner, Sumitomo Corporation; and he sought to state and then abandoned the actual name for the ICMM (International Council of Metals and Minerals) of which ARM is a member.

Then there were other illogical musings left to curl up and die in a cul-de-sac of his own making. For instance, he declared his love for black, which is the colour of coal, before dwelling on the relevance of green (presumably given its association to energy transition metals), before settling on the colour of the new R200 South African note which is purple.

Interspersed with this was an apparent lament for combustion engine cars because Formula E motorsport is ungratifyingly soundless compared to the “vroom” of its Formula One counterpart.

Amusingly, he told ARM’s minority shareholders – Motsepe is the group’s largest shareholder with a 39.7% stake – the company “could have paid more” in dividends, but didn’t, quite rightly, considering its year-end results. It retained R9.78bn in cash.

And yet amid the stream of consciousness, he also delivers moments of blinding honesty. Asked by a journalist what he thought of Public Enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan’s calls for a possible overhaul of Transnet’s senior management, he stated executives ought to have the requisite experience. They can be amazing CEOs, he argued, but if you have no experience in trains, you ought not be managing them.

Portia Derby, prior to her appointment at Transnet three-and-a-half years ago has no former experience in the bulk mineral logistics that forms the largest contributor to the rail and port utility’s business. Yet there she presides, even as it crumbles. On September 1, Transnet reported a R10bn bottom line reverse in the 12 months ended March. Annualised mineral exports totalling R50bn had been lost by South Africa owing to Transnet failings, according to statement by the Minerals Council in October last year. The council subsequently demanded Derby’s resignation the following month and settled in January on a close cooperation which is promising to deliver improvements.

To his credit, Motsepe is the only executive to have spoken so boldly about what Transnet really needs. He said: “The same principle applies to Eskom and any other parastatal: the principle of employing the best skills and expertise, the best person for the job, is non-negotiable. Absolutely non-negotiable.

“We can’t be experimenting. There is no time for playing around and fidgeting by saying you are such a smart, bright, young person but your experience is in question. And you put that person in a position of leadership that requires five, ten, 15 years of experience of practical experience.”

“Let me make a bad example,” said Motsepe, actually citing a very good one: “‘I’m an excellent CEO, but I don’t have experience in the mining industry'”. He concluded: “The best people in any industry are the ones who have grown up in the industry and understand it.”

He said no-one is beyond criticism. “Not even me,” he declared. “That is in the nature of leadership.”