Sunday Times

Red flags, red faces in Rus­sia

Zuma was fu­ri­ous that he had noth­ing to show Putin on the nu­clear deal and even an­grier when Nene re­fused to sign a hastily writ­ten agree­ment

- By NA­DINE DREYER Russia · Russian Empire · Iceland · Nuremberg · Belarus · Belgium · Jacob Zuma · Cyril Ramaphosa · Austria · Gupta family · Pravin Gordhan · Theresa May · South African Airways · Dudu Myeni · Queen · Elizabeth II · Nhlanhla Nene · David van Rooyen · Trevor Manuel · David Mahlobo · Saharanpur · Duduzane Zuma

The venue for the Zondo in­quiry into the cap­ture of the South African state gives few clues to the un­fold­ing drama within. The grey walls and rows of con­fer­ence chairs in the cav­ernous space could equally have been the stage for a sem­i­nar on cor­po­rate sales tac­tics. In­stead, the dra­matic story of pil­lage on a grand scale is be­ing metic­u­lously pieced to­gether through the tes­ti­mony of var­i­ous play­ers. Venues for a call­ing to ac­count rarely give an inkling of the mag­ni­tude of the rev­e­la­tions un­fold­ing within.

Court­room 600 in Nurem­berg, where the sur­viv­ing monsters of the Nazi high com­mand were brought to trial af­ter World War 2, is still a work­ing court seven decades later. Wooden benches and heavy cur­tains give no hint of its role in prose­cut­ing war crim­i­nals.

This week fi­nance min­is­ter Nh­lanhla Nene be­came the first sit­ting min­is­ter to tes­tify to the com­mis­sion, chaired by deputy chief jus­tice Ray­mond Zondo.

The search for the truth is pre­cise, de­tailed, cat­a­logued. Two lever-arch files handed in by Nene are la­belled K1a (the thick one) and K1b.

Be­fore get­ting to the essence of his tes­ti­mony the min­is­ter in­di­cates for the record where words need to be in­serted or cor­rected on his sub­mis­sion. A par­lia­men­tary ques­tion is cor­rected. (It wasn’t a ques­tion, it was a let­ter.) Through­out Nene’s ap­pear­ance the deputy chief jus­tice’s low growl in­ter­jects when seek­ing clar­ity on a point.

Mad em­peror

Nene is of course the man who was dra­mat­i­cally fired by Zuma on De­cem­ber 9 2015 af­ter barely more than 18 months into the job. He re­turned to the port­fo­lio this year as part of Cyril Ramaphosa’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Zuma re­placed Nene with court jester Des van Rooyen, the “Week­end Spe­cial” who had spent seven con­sec­u­tive days at the Gupta’s Sax­on­wold com­pound be­fore warm­ing the fi­nance min­is­ter’s seat for lit­tle more than a long week­end.

It’s be­come al­most a tra­di­tion for com­men­ta­tors to men­tion the mad em­peror Caligula’s am­bi­tion to ap­point his beloved horse Inci­ta­tus as con­sul when as­sess­ing wildly in­ap­pro­pri­ate po­lit­i­cal ap­point­ments. Van Rooyen’s ten­ure was barely longer than it would have taken Inci­ta­tus to gob­ble down a bucket of oats.

The anger at the Van Rooyen ap­point­ment was so seis­mic that for once the em­peror res­i­dent at Mahlamba Nd­lopfu was com­pelled to put the in­ter­ests of South Africans be­fore the play­ing of his own fid­dle. Zuma was forced to re­place Van Rooyen only four days later with the unim­peach­able Pravin Gord­han.

Hav­ing said that, Van Rooyen wasted no time in do­ing the Gupta bid­ding dur­ing those four days. He ar­rived at the Trea­sury with two Gupta at­tack dogs and, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, had man­aged to feed in­tel­li­gence to the brothers within a few hours. This is a ter­ri­fy­ing glimpse into how re­lent­less and fo­cused the mis­sion to hi­jack the state cof­fers could be.

Nene un­der oath was a model of un­der­state­ment. He could have been for­given if he had ex­uded a smug sense of right­eous­ness at his re­turn to the Trea­sury, but this is not his style.

Nene had first been ap­pointed min­is­ter on May 25 2014 af­ter serv­ing as deputy un­der both Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gord­han.

Although there are mul­ti­ple rea­sons for his fall from grace, in­clud­ing his in­evitable bat­tles with SAA CEO Dudu Myeni, it’s clear he be­lieves his op­po­si­tion to Zuma’s nu­clear am­bi­tions and its in­fi­nite po­ten­tial for self-en­rich­ment was the main rea­son for his un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous ax­ing.

Let’s just em­pha­sise that the 9,600MW nu­clear build pro­gramme would have cost the coun­try gazil­lions and gazil­lions. Does any­body even know how many noughts there are in a tril­lion rands? The op­por­tu­nity for state loot­ing would have been in­fi­nite.

As the Trea­sury kept the key to the state cof­fers, the fi­nance min­is­ter would be con­sulted on all ma­jor gov­ern­ment projects. Un­sur­pris­ingly, he earned the nick­name Mr No among fel­low cabi­net min­is­ters for rein­ing in spend­ing. Un­sur­pris­ingly, he also faced in­tense pres­sure to en­dorse projects.

As the fi­nal bul­wark against cor­rup­tion, the fi­nance min­is­ter needs the full sup­port of the pres­i­dent to main­tain Trea­sury cred­i­bil­ity. (That’s un­less the pres­i­dent is cor­rupt, of course. )

In June 2015 the pres­i­dent made se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions about the Trea­sury to his fi­nance min­is­ter.

Nene was with his direc­tor-gen­eral when his PA in­ter­rupted their meet­ing. The pres­i­dent wanted to see him im­me­di­ately. (He joked to his col­league that he was about to be fired.)

The pres­i­dent was host­ing a Malaysian of­fi­cial and their dis­cus­sions sur­rounded a po­ten­tial deal in­volv­ing PetroSA. The de­tails are not rel­e­vant to this nar­ra­tive ex­cept that the ques­tion of gov­ern­ment guar­an­tees was raised. At some point dur­ing their dis­cus­sions Zuma com­mented that the Trea­sury was run by apartheid spies.

“It was clear Trea­sury did not en­joy Zuma’s sup­port,” Nene told the com­mis­sion with that char­ac­ter­is­tic un­der­state­ment.

Project Spi­der Web and the Queen of Leaves

About a month later, in July 2015, a col­league for­warded a sin­is­ter doc­u­ment ti­tled Project Spi­der Web to Nene. The bizarre re­port claimed the Trea­sury had been cap­tured by apartheid state agents and white mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal. Maria Ramos was named as one of the han­dlers, op­er­at­ing un­der the pseu­do­nym “Queen of Leaves”. (An al­le­ga­tion even those se­verely lack­ing in grey mat­ter could not pos­si­bly fall for.)

Con­cerned at the dam­age this smear cam­paign could in­flict on the Trea­sury, Nene passed on the re­port to the depart­ment of state se­cu­rity, then headed by David Mahlobo, a wa­ter sci­en­tist by pro­fes­sion. (Don’t ask.)

To this day the ori­gins of the doc­u­ment are un­known. Nene never got any feed­back af­ter for­ward­ing Project Spi­der Web to Mahlobo and his spooks.

Nene was asked to ex­plain his re­la­tion­ship with the Gupta fam­ily. He first en­coun­tered the brothers from Sa­ha­ran­pur at a din­ner af­ter the state of the na­tion ad­dress in 2010. They were “sit­ting at the high ta­ble”.

By in­vi­ta­tion he vis­ited the Sa­hara com­puter head­quar­ters in Midrand and was struck by re­peated as­sur­ances that the Gup­tas were “good cor­po­rate cit­i­zens”. Also that they did not do busi­ness with the gov­ern­ment. Nene re­marked that it was strange that they kept re­spond­ing to a ques­tion that was not be­ing asked.

Nene would get a call from Ajay Gupta to come around and “dis­cuss the econ­omy” and he would pass by the Sax­on­wold com­pound if he was free.

Although ques­tions were be­ing asked about the Gupta in­flu­ence in the me­dia, there were no signs of any­thing un­to­ward as far as the min­is­ter could see.

That started to change in 2013. Duduzane Zuma’s pres­ence on one visit to Sax­on­wold con­firmed the fam­ily’s re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dent.

Warn­ing lights started flash­ing when the Trea­sury started in­ves­ti­gat­ing charges of fraud and cor­rup­tion amount­ing to mil­lions at the Estina dairy farm and in­volv­ing Gupta as­so­ci­ates. Nene de­clined an

 ?? Pic­ture: Thapelo Morebudi ?? HOLD­ING THE LINE Nh­lanhla Nene tells the in­quiry into state cap­ture this week how he re­fused to do Zuma’s bid­ding.
Pic­ture: Thapelo Morebudi HOLD­ING THE LINE Nh­lanhla Nene tells the in­quiry into state cap­ture this week how he re­fused to do Zuma’s bid­ding.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa