NPA accused of selective justice by appointing curator who had role in sale of Optimum Coal Mine to Guptas

An entrance to the Optimum Coal Mine near Hendrina in Mpumalanga. Picture: File

An entrance to the Optimum Coal Mine near Hendrina in Mpumalanga. Picture: File

Published Sep 8, 2022


Tshwarelo Hunter Mogakane

Pretoria - The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has been accused of applying selective justice by appointing a businessman who facilitated the sale of the controversial Optimum Coal Mine between Glencore and the Guptas to be a curator of the same property on behalf of the state.

Optimum Coal Mine, based in Hendrina, Mpumalanga, has been at the centre of back-and-forth litigation, with its subsidiary, Optimum Coal Terminal.

Last December, the NPA approached the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria for a preservation order against the current owners of the mine, Tegeta. The order meant that the assets of Optimum Coal Mine and Optimum Coal Terminal could not be disposed of in any manner.

In March this year the court granted the order, rendering Tegeta unable to operate or sell off the mine. The preservation order necessitated the appointment of a business rescue practitioner as a curator, as envisaged by the NPA.

However, the NPA argued that Optimum Coal Mine and Optimum Coal Terminal’s creditors be prevented from implementing business rescue plans to resuscitate the mine because they had a conflict of interest, and that the mine was acquired unlawfully or that it represented acts of money laundering.

“We are concerned that the NPA decided to act now when creditors were about to get a chance to play a role in the rescuing of the mine. How could they suddenly step in when we are about to get our jobs back?

“People lost their houses and some of their children had to drop out of university since mining activities were brought to a halt,” said National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) branch secretary in Hendrina, Richard Mguzulu.

Mguzulu said 1 250 workers lost their livelihoods in 2016 when they were retrenched and offered severance packages.

“Those who had better lump sums were able to pay off their houses, but now remain without a cent because they have lost income. We have practically lost control of our lives.

“Our dignity has been stripped and the pain of not working is simply unbearable. This NPA process has set us back many years,” he said.

Mguzulu said the workers also had a problem with the curator, Petrus van den Steen, of Metis Strategic Advisors, as he played a role in the original sale of the mine to the Gupta family, a transaction that has been declared unlawful, hence the preservation order.

“Mr Van den Steen cannot be allowed to be a player and a referee. He participated in a sale that the NPA declared illegal, and has gone to court to nullify the sale as part of preventing corruption and fraud. How could the same man who was there when the crime took place be appointed as the curator? He should be in court with those who committed the crime.

“The NPA is trying to correct a wrong by installing a man who was involved when the wrong happened. It will never make sense to us as workers who are languishing in poverty,” Mguzulu said.

A community member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they had been struggling since the mine’s closure. “We had various businesses that benefited from the mining activities. Some operated transport for the workers and there were small businesses that rendered different services and sold products to the mine and its workers.

“The most painful thing is that our water supply as a community came from the water the mine was pumping. Now that there is no mining activity we have been left without water and nobody seems to care about that,” he said.

The National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) has now approached the High Court seeking a forfeiture order, which will see the state taking over Optimum Coal Mine and Optimum Coal Terminal based on evidence that they were acquired unlawfully. Van den Steen will remain curator of the property, according to the NPA.

The deputy NDPP, Juliana Rabaji- Rasethaba, argued in papers filed before the court that the sale of Optimum Coal Mine to the Gupta family was “a crime itself”. She said the forfeiture of the property to the state would help achieve the objectives of the Prevention of Crime Act.

NPA spokesperson Sindisiwe Seboka acknowledged receipt of media questions but requested more time.

Van den Steen questioned the motives of those who were complaining about his appointment.

Among the questions sent to him was whether he considered himself a criminal for participating in the unlawful sale of the mine to the Guptas. Van den Steen declined to comment immediately, but promised to provide a comprehensive response on Friday.

Pretoria News