The minister who refused to sign
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?