A shadowy figure who reportedly has links to the State Security Agency (SSA) has been appointed as the acting head of security at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA).
Alexio Papadopulo was thrust into the public sphere when News24 reported that key individuals in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2017 ANC leadership campaign team suspected him of being the source of the leaked emails that led to widespread scrutiny of the campaign’s funds — a charge he denies and says he has been cleared of.
Now amaBhungane has established that he is part of a cohort of security officials, mostly linked to former structures of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in the Western Cape — at least some of whom appear to have done work for the SSA under former top spy Arthur Fraser or for Fraser’s private intelligence company, Resurgent Risk Managers.
The security officials appear to have been deployed as a group, first to the CR17 campaign and now to PRASA
Questions have also been raised about their relationship with PRASA board chair Leonard Ramatlakane and transport minister Fikile Mbalula.
One went so far as to invoke his association with Ramatlakane and Mbalula to colleagues who were sent to find him after absconding from work.
This raises the ultimate question as to whether the security team’s role is to protect PRASA — or to help capture it?
The mysterious Mr Papadopulo
Papadopulo, a former sales employee and later business partner at a Centurion electronic goods outlet, presents himself as a cyber security expert.
During the run-up to the ANC elective congress in December 2017 he was hired by the CR17 campaign’s head of security, Wally Rhoode, to secure the campaign’s communications.
Papadopulo set up and managed the campaign’s dedicated email server, “alexio.online”.
According to News24, after Ramaphosa became president Papadopulo worked for him for eight months before reportedly departing amid a “a series of confrontations” with Rhoode, who was by then a Major General and head of the presidential protection unit.
The report quoted claims that Papadopulo was “tight with Fraser” and suggested he was later suspected by key Ramaphosa operatives of being the source of leaks of emails from inside the CR17 campaign.
These leaks formed part of evidence delivered anonymously to Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane and cited in her July 2019 report which found that Ramaphosa failed to declare benefits he received from donations to his multi-million-rand internal election campaign.
The Public Protector’s report was later set aside by the courts as irrational and without merit, but in the meantime the emails leaked to the media, with both News24 and the Independent group publishing stories exposing confidential CR17 donations and communications in early August 2019.
A source who was close to Papadopulo during the campaign said it was rumoured that he was “somehow connected to Fraser” and “untouchable due to this connection”.
Papadopulo claims he was cleared of involvement after an investigation into the leaks by the Hawks cybercrimes unit. He showed amaBhungane a message from a Hawks officer suggesting he had cooperated with the investigation and was not a suspect.
Papadopulo told amaBhungane, “Remember the point of the matter is that I don’t know Fraser. The only time I knew Fraser was when Fraser was also assisting in the campaign. So that’s all I know of Fraser, in terms of the rest, I have no clue of my ‘close relationship’.”
Fraser did not respond to questions from amaBhungane sent to him through a trusted intermediary.
A senior figure from the Ramaphosa administration, speaking anonymously, told amaBhungane they did not think Papadopulo was behind the CR17 leaks.
Papadopulo is not the only person to come under suspicion.
A highly placed intelligence source told amaBhungane that Rhoode previously received cash payments from the SSA or one of its covert structures.
This is understood to have included the time during which he was contracted to Ramaphosa’s ANC presidential campaign — a time when Jacob Zuma was president and Fraser was running the SSA. There is circumstantial evidence suggesting that he had money problems that might have given him reason to take covert cash from the SSA.
In 2019 City Press obtained an SSA letter revealing that Rhoode had been denied Top Secret security clearance due to evidence of “poor financial judgement” because he failed to pay tax to Sars and had defaulted on payments to ABSA and MTN.
Of further concern is that Rhoode brought into the CR17 campaign not only Papadopulo, but a group of associates and a security company with whom Rhoode had a chequered history.
Rhoda, who is still in charge of Ramaphosa’s protection, told us that “police media protocols” prevent him from responding to matters related to CR17.
He added: “I must say you raise intersecting issues and would like to respond but can’t.”
The NPA and IPTS
The “intersecting issues” and their present-day relevance to PRASA are better understood against the backdrop of a questionable 2006 security tender awarded by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to an unknown KwaZulu-Natal-based security company, Intense Protection and Tourist Services (IPTS)
IPTS was (and is still) owned by businessperson Muziwandile “Dalo” Nala.
In late 2011, the Hawks arrested five people in relation to suspected tender fraud involving the IPTS-NPA contract, including Rhoode, who was NPA head of security in 2006 before going on to run security operations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
The others arrested were Nala and three employees of the NPA: John Maree,
Terence Joubert, and Tebogo Sethabela. (Sethabela is now the director of supply chain at the NPA and has a long-pending lawsuit against his employer for wrongful arrest.)
Rhoode, Joubert, and Maree formed part of a group that led the NPA’s security structures at the time. The group included Trevor Fredericks, the NPA head of security for the Western and Northern Cape.
Fredericks left the NPA in 2007. In 2015 he was the regional manager for Fraser’s Resurgent Risk where he was tasked with managing a contract for PRASA in the Western Cape. As we shall see Fredericks would reappear in CR17 and later as head of security for PRASA.
Part of the Hawks investigation of the IPTS tender included a search and seizure operation targeting Joubert, who was based at the NPA in Durban.
As amaBhungane reported in 2012, controversial special prosecutor Lawrence Mrwebi, widely regarded as a key enabler of the ‘capture’ of the NPA under Zuma, was accused of trying, unsuccessfully, to halt the search.
In any event, the case went nowhere.
New investigating officers were appointed leading to delays and in May 2012 charges were provisionally withdrawn when the court refused to grant another postponement.
At the time the NPA told amaBhungane investigations remained on track and the case would be re-enrolled.
That didn’t happen.
In 2014 charges against all accused were withdrawn after reconsideration by a senior commercial crime prosecutor, though notably this fact did not emerge publicly until 2019.
Rhoode & Co join CR17
It seems extraordinary that this history did not raise questions when Rhoode was brought on board the CR17 campaign.
Rhoode also brought in Fredericks and another ex-MK comrade, whose LinkedIn profile shows he too spent time working for Resurgent, the private intelligence company established by Fraser in 2010 during his stint outside the SSA.
Even more extraordinary was that CR17, presumably through Rhoode, contracted IPTS to provide security to the campaign. The leaked CR17 bank statements show IPTS was paid around R10-million between May 2017 and March 2018.
By then IPTS, its owner Nala and another of his companies, Semele Trading Enterprise, were already the subject of negative findings in investigations ordered by National Treasury in 2016, following a Public Protector’s report on PRASA.
That set of probes also flagged a 2015 PRASA contract awarded irregularly to Resurgent Risk under which some R53-million was paid out, and recommended that criminal action be taken against former PRASA officials.
Resurgent seemed both politically embedded and contentious: in May 2017 it launched a R20-million claim against the ANC for payment for “election support and strategic services” in the run up to the 2014 elections.
Yet none of this appeared to have caused even a ripple in the CR17 campaign at the time — and later on PRASA was similarly unmoved by this history.
From CR17 to PRASA
Papadopulo’s re-emergence at PRASA prompted amaBhungane to look closely at the organisation’s security team.
He was one of a group of nine individuals given fixed-term contracts in PRASA’s security department in June 2021.
The list included Fredericks, then newly-appointed as head of security.
Alongside Papadopulo and Fredericks were other new security appointees who had worked at CR17. Bank statements show that among the nine, at least three others were also previously part of the CR17 team, meaning at least five of the nine.
The appointments were highly unusual and PRASA’s majority union, the United National Transport Union (UNTU), demanded answers about the appointment process.
In an email from UNTU deputy secretary general Neels Haasbroek to the former head of human resources Thandeka Mabija and other PRASA officials, the union requested an urgent probe into the appointments over concerns about hiring processes being side-stepped.
The union wanted to know why internal members of the security division were overlooked for these high level positions.
Haasbroek added, “Trevor Fredericks is a friend of the Minister and it is not the first time that he is appointed as security head. He previously declined the offer.
“I request an urgent Forensic Audit regarding these appointments…”
The “minister” was Mbalula, appointed to the transport portfolio in 2019.
Team of ten
Plans for the recruitment of this allegedly hand-picked security team appear to have gone back as far as October 2020 when Ramatlakane, a veteran Western Cape politician, was appointed the new PRASA chair.
By then serious damage had been done to PRASA infrastructure during the Covid lockdown after it was left vulnerable when the agency cancelled all its irregular security contracts in 2019 without putting in place proper alternatives.
In response National Treasury had approved a budget shift of R900-million to take care of protecting PRASA assets in the short term — and the new security team seems to have been brought in to implement a grand new community driven security plan, to be led by MK veterans.
AmaBhungane was told that PRASA executives were introduced to Fredericks and Papadopulo in about mid-October 2020 as people being brought on board allegedly “on a request of shareholder”, meaning Mbalula.
In response to a request for comment, the minister’s spokesperson Lawrence Venkile told amaBhungane to direct questions about “the employment of persons and procurement matters” to PRASA.
See Mbalula’s full response here.
By November 2020, Fredericks was being touted for a position as operational security manager to assist PRASA to develop a security strategy.
By 15 December Ramatlakane, the new chair, was emailing a new security plan to acting chief executive Thandeka Mabija.
The plan reads, “Phase one is to establish the different modules of our security plan… A team has been identified with vast knowledge of security and rail infrastructure. The team comprises of ten trained and skilled people from all sorts of security backgrounds. This team will be deployed into our different modules in order to carry out the urgent work needed to fix PRASA security and look after its infrastructure.”
By that December Fredericks was already being included in emails (though it’s not clear in what capacity) and the new security plan was already slated to include the portentously named People’s Responsibility to Protect Project (PR2P).
By February 2021, the then head of security , General Tebogo Rakau, who had raised objections to the PR2P plan and questioned Fredericks role, had been fired.
By March Mbalula had announced the project officially, including promising that at least 80 MK veterans would be appointed as train corridor coordinators to oversee the thousands of paid community volunteers.
But, as amaBhungane reported, a month later recruitment for the project was put on hold as newly appointed chief executive officer Zolani Matthews pulled the brakes on its implementation.
By June 2021, though, nine of Ramatlakane’s ten security experts had been appointed.
What of the tenth?
The NPA’s Joubert again
Following Fredericks’ unexpected death in August 2021, Papadopulo assumed the role of acting head of security and, amaBhungane has established, began pushing the employment of Terence Joubert – though this never came to fruition.
PRASA said it was not aware of this.
Recall that Joubert was one of the accused in the case involving IPTS, which was withdrawn in 2014.
Meanwhile at the NPA, Joubert was facing a new round of disciplinary charges relating to a 2019 incident in which an envelope of R30,000 in cash was allegedly dropped in his car by a relative of Craig Ponnan, an accused in a tender fraud case involving former Durban mayor Zandile Gumede.
The NPA declined to prosecute criminally, but recently told amaBhungane that Joubert had been found guilty of gross dishonesty in a disciplinary hearing and was scheduled to be sanctioned.
Joubert told amaBhungane he had been set up and said he had not circulated his CV for a position at PRASA.
Papadopulo at PRASA
If Fredericks and Papadopulo gathered a familiar crew around them at PRASA, then to what purpose?
In terms of the security plan delivered by Ramatlakane, the core team of ten was clearly intended to lead the complete overhaul of PRASA’s broken security systems — at a cost of hundreds of millions of rands.
As early as February 2021, there was information circulating within PRASA that a private security company, the Red Ants, was being consulted about being onboarded as security providers, a senior PRASA source told amaBhungane.
That process was suddenly accelerated with the outbreak of unrest in KwaZulu Natal in July 2021.
This resulted in an emergency procurement process that by its nature bypasses the normal supply chain rules.
The emergency process was initiated two days after the unrest broke out (11 July) when PRASA allegedly received “intelligence and information” that its infrastructure would be under attack — according to a memo which sets out the rationale and the process that was followed.
One source told us that Mbalula first raised the issue about a planned attack on PRASA’s infrastructure and the then chief executive Matthews initiated the emergency procurement.
But, it was Fredericks and Papadopulo who sourced the service providers, almost overnight, for a R250-million contract.
The memo notes: “Due to the nature of the emergency PRASA corporate security needed deployments to initiate immediately and over a period of 12 hours to be at all stations. The two companies that responded and had the capabilities to deliver were IPTS and Red Ants Security.”
IPTS’s history with Fredericks & co is already well established.
AmaBhungane is not aware of any evidence of a similar prior relationship with the Red Ants, but we have previously pointed out that the company seems politically well-connected.
The Red Ants were contracted from 11 to 31 July for a staggering R241-million, covering Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape.
IPTS were to be paid R7.6-million for services in KZN only.
During this period Fredericks fell ill and Papadupolo took over as acting head of security, compiling and signing on16 August the addendum memo that included the costs for the riot intervention.
Matthews, the chief executive, in turn signed to approve the memo and addendum on 28 August and 9 September respectively – but by October 2021 the contracts had yet to be fully paid and the Red Ants issued a letter of demand to PRASA.
According to the letter, PRASA had promised to pay the full R241-million owed to the Red Ants, but they had only received under R10-million.
The Red Ants’ lawyer told the Sunday Times at the time, “Prasa confirmed that the job was done correctly. If there is presumption of something untoward that is incorrect.”
Amabhungane understands Papadupolo took a keen interest in the outstanding payments, so much so that it caused friction within the organisation.
Such was the concern with the delay in paying the invoices that insiders claim this played a role in the board’s decision in February this year to place the chief financial officer, Lesibana Fosu, on precautionary suspension, though PRASA said it was for other reasons.
Rumours of Fosu’s impending suspension first surfaced in November 2021 when the Sunday Times reported that after nine months at the helm, Matthews had been suspended by the board.
The paper suggested Fosu could be next in line as Mbalula and the board had received briefs that the CFO was hampering PRASA’s operations because she failed to pay invoices on time.
In the article Fosu is quoted as saying the finance department would not approve “suspect” invoices: “If that’s impeding PRASA operations, at least we can ensure that taxpayer money does not fund irregularities.”
Fosu would not comment when approached by amaBhungane, but according to insiders she raised questions in relation to the payment of the emergency security contracts.
Communication seen by amaBhungane confirms that Papadupolo pushed for the riot invoices to be paid, notwithstanding formal concerns raised about the emergency procurement process.
In November an eight-page internal audit report was addressed to Papadupolo.
The report said the process to appoint the two security companies was not “fair and transparent” because, for one, there were other private security providers who submitted quotations that were not considered.
The report did not go into who was responsible, nor did it address the cost of the contract and if PRASA received value for money.
Papadopulo told amaBhungane the only reason he felt “pressurised” to finalise the payments was because of Public Finance Management Act provisions, which stipulate that public entities should pay invoices within 30 days.
Oddly, on 21 February this year it was Papadopulo who communicated news of Fosu’s precautionary suspension in an email to PRASA’s senior management.
“Please make sure that the organisation recognise (sic) that Ms Fosu is suspended and people should not be (sic) copy Ms Fosu into any emails or communications from PRASA,” Papadopulo said in the email sent out to management, including the acting chief executive David Mphelo.
He went on: “Please make sure… that these instructions are understood as I am currently investigating.”
Insiders questioned why the email had come from Papadopulo not the acting CEO and suggested it demonstrated Papadopulo’s influence.
By then Matthews was out of the picture, having been fired as CEO a few days after his suspension in November 2021.
He was axed for not declaring his dual South African-British citizenship, though this appeared a flimsy pretext for the Ramatlakane board to get rid of him just eight months into the job.
AmaBhungane has seen evidence that Matthews was being pressed to pay the emergency security contracts and to act against Fosu, which he appeared reluctant to do.
But in the background was also Matthews’ ambivalent role in another huge controversy, the Siyangena contract (see sidebar).
Matthews, who is undergoing an arbitration process with PRASA, refused to comment.
Nothing to see here
So what is going on in PRASA’s security department?
It is worth noting that PRASA has long been a resource for feeding MK factions and parking spooks.
We should recall that in 2019 Daily Maverick revealed that former SSA deep-cover agent Mandisa Mokwena was quietly appointed as strategic adviser to PRASA interim chief executive Sibusiso Sithole in September 2018 – and even served as acting head of security until she was replaced by Rakau in May 2019.
So perhaps it is unsurprising that PRASA maintains there was nothing untoward about the appointments of Fredericks, Papadopulo and the others.
Ramatlakane told amaBhungane the team had “special” security skills and the process to appoint them was compliant with the company’s recruitment polices.
PRASA said that when head-hunting for “critical scarce skills” there was no need to advertise positions.
These individuals would provide the “intelligence-driven response” which PRASA said would “curb the vandalism of its valuable assets and other criminal activities which were found to be workings of a criminal syndicate”.
“You know that before the group came, there was absolutely no information provided [about] the stealing of the cable, this intelligence information was non-existent. That’s one of the skills that are found in the group and that’s what we need,” Ramatlakane told us.
By Ramatlakane’s account, Fredericks was the driving force behind amending PRASA’s security plan in 2020, which led to the appointment of the security team and the R200-million community patrol programme (PR2P).
Notably, this was long before Fredericks’ official appointment in mid-2021. So who paid him?
Ramatlakane told amaBhungane Fredericks initially refused an offered contract, but instead assisted PRASA with developing its security plan “free of charge”.
Asked if Fredericks’ involvement in redesigning the security plan while not formally employed, with little to no knowledge of the operating and security environment did not pose a major security risk, PRASA said that he worked with the previous head of security, Rakau, and “helped identify gaps and shortcoming in our systems”.
Ramatlakane explained that when the new board was appointed, the corporate security plan was in place but it was amended to include items such as the PR2P.
“Rakau could not write this strategy to incorporate what we wanted to be incorporated in corporate security plan,” he said, adding that the excuse Rakau provided was that “I have not done it before. So you can do it”.
But Rakau denies this.
He maintains Fredericks, far from working “free of charge”, was employed on a short-term contract in late 2020, which Rakau claims was at the insistence of then acting CEO Mabija.
Rakau told amaBhungane that he first got sight of the new security strategy in a meeting that took place on 16 December 2020 where these amendments were discussed.
In the meeting was board chair Ramatlakane, Mabija and someone Rakau had not expected: Fredericks.
The reason Fredericks’s presence was a surprise was because shortly after PRASA finalised his contract as an operations security manager, he disappeared.
Rakau said after Fredericks stopped reporting to work he wrote to the human resources department to have his salary frozen.
“HR’s response was that I should make means of trying to locate him. I sent people to his house and they found him but still he didn’t come to work,” said Rakau.
AmaBhungane is in possession of an audio recording of the PRASA delegation’s visit to Fredericks.
In the recording a contemptuous Fredericks confirms to the officials he has been ignoring Rakau’s phone calls.
“I am in contact with the board chair and the minister. I don’t have time for him now,” Fredericks is heard saying.
He tells the officials that he will inform Mbalula and Ramatlakane that Rakau sent people to look for him and will provide them with these individuals names.
The recording ends with Fredericks saying, “He is arrogant to send you, I know it’s got nothing to do with you, I was offered this post and I didn’t want it. That’s what happened.”
Neither PRASA nor Ramatlakane responded to questions about this incident. Mbalula said he was not in a position to comment on “hearsay”. (See his full response [here])
In February 2021 Rakau was dismissed and, while this was overturned by the Labour Court, he chose to settle with PRASA and left in April.
In June, Fredericks was appointed as head of security but died shortly thereafter.
Papadopulo has been acting in the position since.
The most interesting response to queries about the strange convergence of former CR17 security officials in PRASA came from someone in the Ramaphosa presidency, who agreed to speak to us only on background.
We had put it to him that the evidence we had gathered suggested that the SSA had multiple views into the CR17 campaign.
We had pointed out that during Fraser’s engagement with the Zondo Commission, he requested to be provided with “a copy of the file containing intelligence on His Excellency, President Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa, on his business and political activities as well as his associates”.
We noted it was therefore clear that the SSA did indeed spy on Ramaphosa and would have likely continued to do so during his election campaign.
We put it to him that it was surely a matter of concern that some of the most likely channels for this surveillance had previously embedded themselves at the NPA and latterly at PRASA.
While his responses to these issues were frustratingly oblique, what he appeared to think was that we were being fed “deep intelligence” in a bid to upset the delicate balance of forces and interests that keep the Ramaphosa presidency afloat.
That response suggests the burning question is whether that balance includes an accommodation with Arthur Fraser.