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
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.
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