Sunday Times

The min­is­ter who re­fused to sign

- Gupta family · Austria · Sun City · Belgium · Jacob Zuma · Russia · Ufa · Vladimir Putin · Maite Nkoana-Mashabane · David Mahlobo · Russian Empire · Mcebisi Jonas · Belarus · Dubai · African National Congress · Ufa · Fana Hlongwane · Duduzane Zuma · Tina Joemat-Pettersson

in­vi­ta­tion to the in­fa­mous Gupta wed­ding at Sun City as he felt it would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

Zuma’s nu­clear am­bi­tions go back to 2011 when the pre­lim­i­nar­ies were put in place for SA to ac­quire nu­clear en­ergy. The first plant was pro­jected to go on­line in 2023. Zuma him­self took an ac­tive role in cabi­net sub­com­mit­tees in­ves­ti­gat­ing the nitty-gritty.

Fast-for­ward to June 2015 when the cabi­net or­dered a joint re­port from the de­part­ments of fi­nance and en­ergy.

The Trea­sury had cal­cu­lated that the costs were stag­ger­ing. The scale of the Zuma gov­ern­ment’s nu­clear am­bi­tions would en­tail one of the largest pub­lic-sec­tor in­vest­ments in any coun­try world­wide. Ever.

Fu­ture South Africans could be bur­dened with debt for gen­er­a­tions. It would also eat away money al­lo­cated for the poor.

The Trea­sury pro­posed a phased ap­proach with on­go­ing checks to re­assess and po­ten­tially halt run­away costs.

They re­quested in­put from their coun­ter­parts at the depart­ment of en­ergy but none was forth­com­ing.

Tense and hos­tile

Just a month later Nene joined his boss and other min­is­ters for the Brics sum­mit in Ufa, Rus­sia, which was to take place on July 8 and 9.

At a prepara­tory meet­ing with the pres­i­dent and some of his other min­is­ters in Ufa, Zuma wanted to know what progress fi­nance and en­ergy had made on the nu­clear model. (Pre­sum­ably Zuma, who ap­par­ently speaks flu­ent Rus­sian, wanted some­thing tan­gi­ble to show his good pal Vladimir Putin over bli­nis and rem­i­nis­cences of jol­lity be­hind the Iron Cur­tain.)

The at­mos­phere turned tense and hos­tile when Zuma learnt there was noth­ing to show yet. Nene ex­plained that the en­ergy depart­ment had at that stage not pro­vided the nec­es­sary doc­u­men­ta­tion to com­plete the work.

En­ergy min­is­ter Tina Joe­mat-Pet­ters­son (un­der whose watch the coun­try’s strate­gic oil stocks were sold off) pro­duced a let­ter ad­dressed to the Rus­sians which she and Zuma wanted Nene to sign.

Nene re­fused. He told the com­mis­sion the sig­na­ture of the fi­nance min­is­ter would see South Africans en­ter into a bind­ing agree­ment with vast fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions.

Joe­mat-Pet­ters­son ea­ger to please

Asked about the mood dur­ing the meet­ing, Nene said Zuma was an­gry at the lack of progress and Joe­mat-Pet­ters­son was ea­ger to please her boss.

It was clear Zuma wanted the let­ter signed — no mat­ter the con­se­quences for the na­tion. The two min­is­ters were told to go away and sort things out.

Joe­mat-Pet­ters­son pro­duced a re­vised doc­u­ment. “She re­ally wanted to give a pos­i­tive re­sponse to the pres­i­dent.”

Nene felt this new draft was equally un­ac­cept­able and again re­fused to sign.

He was then treated with hos­til­ity and “as one guilty of in­sub­or­di­na­tion”. This ran­cour was par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent from Joe­mat-Pet­ters­son, in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions min­is­ter Maite Nkoana-Masha­bane and that old Zuma trooper David Mahlobo. They failed to grasp the im­pli­ca­tions of sign­ing the let­ter — if in­deed they even cared.

Will his­to­ri­ans chron­i­cling the story of state cap­ture in years to come re­gard this sin­gle act of re­fusal as the one that saved us from decades of penury? That the be­spec­ta­cled and dap­per fi­nance min­is­ter was a hero de­serv­ing of our eter­nal grat­i­tude for fac­ing down the wrath of Zuma and his lieu­tenants?

What was clear was that Nene was an ob­sta­cle to Zuma’s state cap­ture project. He had to go. Two weeks af­ter their re­turn from Rus­sia, Zuma sum­moned deputy fi­nance min­is­ter Mce­bisi Jonas and ex­pressed his dis­sat­is­fac­tion with his boss.

Then, on Oc­to­ber 26, Nene met Jonas on a bal­cony at the Trea­sury build­ing.

“I could see that Mr Jonas was flus­tered. He in­formed me of an un­com­fort­able meet­ing he had had with Mr Ajay Gupta, Mr Fana Hlong­wane and Mr Duduzane Zuma in Sax­on­wold. He told me that dur­ing that meet­ing, he was of­fered the po­si­tion I was hold­ing at the time, that of min­is­ter of fi­nance.”

Ac­cord­ing to both Nene and ear­lier tes­ti­mony by Jonas, Ajay Gupta had of­fered the deputy fi­nance min­is­ter R600,000 in cash im­me­di­ately and a fur­ther R600m to be de­posited in an off­shore bank ac­count.

It’s tempt­ing to imag­ine how one ar­rives at a fig­ure of R600m as the price tag for a fi­nance min­is­ter. How many con­do­mini­ums could one buy with R600m in Dubai?

“Mr Jonas told me that he re­jected the of­fer of the de­posit and the cash that he was in­vited to take im­me­di­ately.”

Nene re­called telling his deputy. “Who are they to of­fer you the job of min­is­ter?”

Trea­sury team went for cof­fee, gob­s­macked

On his re­turn from Rus­sia, Nene had acted to drive the nu­clear fea­si­bil­ity re­port be­tween fi­nance and en­ergy for­ward, as his boss had so force­fully de­manded.

On De­cem­ber 8 2015 Zuma sched­uled a nu­clear meet­ing at 3pm with rel­e­vant cabi­net mem­bers. The meet­ing was then moved to 4pm and when Nene ar­rived at 4pm he re­alised con­sul­ta­tion had al­ready taken place be­tween Zuma and the other min­is­ters.

En­ergy of­fi­cials then pre­sented their nu­clear re­port. It omit­ted any in­put from the Trea­sury. This sugar-coated pre­sen­ta­tion show­cased only the very best sce­nario.

Nene gave the ex­change rate as one ex­am­ple of this. Fig­ures in the en­ergy re­port were cal­cu­lated at a rate of R10 to the dol­lar. Yet on that day the rate was R14.57 to the dol­lar. In ef­fect this meant the strato­spheric cost of nu­clear was un­der­stated by 40%. Grossly com­i­cal if it had not been so reck­less.

Trea­sury of­fi­cials raised se­ri­ous con­cerns but Nene had reached the end of the road. “I had ex­pended all my fight­ing power.”

Af­ter the meet­ing the Trea­sury team went to the Sher­a­ton for cof­fee, gob­s­macked by the mag­ni­tude of what had just hap­pened. Me­dia re­ports started sur­fac­ing that Nene would be fired and re­placed by Van Rooyen.

Big­gest ob­sta­cle to state cap­ture was re­moved in min­utes

The next day the last cabi­net meet­ing of the year started at 8.30am.

Cabi­net meet­ings are top se­cret and we know some de­tail of the meet­ing only be­cause the com­mis­sion ap­plied to get the min­utes de­clas­si­fied.

Nene told the com­mis­sion that despite its gross flaws the nu­clear re­port pre­sented the day be­fore by the depart­ment of en­ergy was ap­proved by the cabi­net sub­ject to some al­ter­ations. (Yet when me­dia re­ports sur­faced a few days later that the cabi­net had se­cretly ap­proved the start of the nu­clear pro­cure­ment pro­gramme dur­ing that meet­ing, this was de­nied.)

Af­ter the cabi­net meet­ing ended at 5.30pm Nene was on his way home when he re­ceived a call that the pres­i­dent wanted to see him.

Nene had ear­lier told the Zondo com­mis­sion that he had al­ways been aware that his was not a five-year job, but a 24-hour job in which the in­cum­bent served at the plea­sure of the pres­i­dent.

Shortly af­ter 6pm Zuma told his fi­nance min­is­ter that the ANC’s top six had de­cided he should be de­ployed to the Brics bank and that Zuma would be mak­ing an an­nounce­ment about Nene’s suc­ces­sor shortly.

Nene thanked the pres­i­dent for al­low­ing him to serve in his cabi­net and they shook hands.

The big­gest ob­sta­cle to state cap­ture had been elim­i­nated in a meet­ing last­ing no longer than two to three min­utes.

Will the be­spec­ta­cled and dap­per fi­nance min­is­ter go down as a hero de­serv­ing of our eter­nal grat­i­tude for fac­ing down the wrath of Zuma?

 ?? Pic­ture: Reuters ?? DEAL OR NO DEAL For­mer pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma wanted to sign an ex­pen­sive nu­clear deal with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2015 but his fi­nance min­is­ter wouldn’t play ball.
Pic­ture: Reuters DEAL OR NO DEAL For­mer pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma wanted to sign an ex­pen­sive nu­clear deal with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2015 but his fi­nance min­is­ter wouldn’t play ball.
 ?? Pic­ture: Reuters ?? Sec­onds out, round No 2! Nh­lanhla Nene is sworn in as min­is­ter of fi­nance for the sec­ond time, in Fe­bru­ary this year.
Pic­ture: Reuters Sec­onds out, round No 2! Nh­lanhla Nene is sworn in as min­is­ter of fi­nance for the sec­ond time, in Fe­bru­ary this year.

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