Sunday Times

Nene might have stood in the way of the dis­as­trous nu­clear deal but sadly not in the way of state cap­ture


For­mer min­is­ter of en­ergy Tina Joe­matPet­ters­son was ap­par­ently in quite a state dur­ing the Brics sum­mit in Ufa, Rus­sia, in July 2015. When she re­turned to SA, she tear­fully con­fided to some col­leagues how she had to shut­tle be­tween then pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma and fi­nance min­is­ter Nh­lanhla Nene with a let­ter com­mit­ting to a nu­clear deal.

Zuma in­sisted that SA pro­duce a doc­u­ment that would demon­strate to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin that the coun­try was ready to pro­ceed with the nu­clear build pro­gramme.

Despite Joe­mat-Pet­ters­son mak­ing amend­ments to the let­ter, Nene would not sign it as the deal would have long-term fi­nan­cial con­se­quences for SA. It was also in vi­o­la­tion of the Pub­lic Fi­nance Man­age­ment Act.

What Nene did not men­tion in his tes­ti­mony to the Zondo com­mis­sion was that Joe­mat-Pet­ters­son was cry­ing in frus­tra­tion at his re­fusal to co-sign the let­ter. He also un­der­played the sit­u­a­tion by say­ing Zuma was “not happy” and “up­set ” by his un­yield­ing at­ti­tude.

Zuma has a pen­chant for graphic Zulu phrase­ol­ogy, which might not have been ap­pro­pri­ate to re­peat to a judge.

It is ac­tu­ally sur­pris­ing that Nene lasted five months more in the fi­nance min­istry af­ter this in­ci­dent.

Joe­mat-Pet­ters­son was per­plexed at Nene’s dogged stance for two rea­sons. Nene is quiet-spo­ken and con­ser­va­tive, so his res­o­lute­ness caught her by sur­prise.

The sec­ond rea­son is that in Zuma’s gov­ern­ment, it was un­usual for a min­is­ter to defy the pres­i­dent. The laws and eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties on po­lit­i­cal of­fice bear­ers rarely in­hib­ited peo­ple re­spond­ing to Zuma’s in­struc­tions and de­mands.

Dur­ing Pravin Gord­han’s first term as fi­nance min­is­ter, he did not openly defy the pres­i­dent but en­sured there were in­or­di­nate de­lays in im­ple­ment­ing Zuma’s ir­ra­tional re­quests.

On Zuma’s de­mand that he is­sue a guar­an­tee to PetroSA for the pur­chase of 80% of En­gen, for ex­am­ple, Gord­han did not refuse to do so but im­posed such oner­ous con­di­tions that the deal was ren­dered un­work­able.

The hos­til­ity against the Na­tional Trea­sury had much to do with the in­no­va­tive meth­ods de­ployed to kick the can for­ward un­til Zuma’s en­vis­aged deals col­lapsed or his part­ners be­came fed up.

The dif­fer­ence in Rus­sia was that there was no way to de­lay or fudge the is­sue. Nene had to refuse point blank, caus­ing an ir­re­triev­able break­down in his re­la­tion­ship with Zuma.

By the time the mat­ter came to the cabi­net in De­cem­ber, the Trea­sury had es­tab­lished that the nu­clear deal was not fea­si­ble and un­af­ford­able. Joe­mat-Pet­ters­son prob­a­bly knew this but to please Zuma, her depart­ment drew up a pro­cure­ment plan that vastly un­der­stated the costs, us­ing an ab­surd ex­change rate of R10/$.

Her depart­ment os­ten­si­bly cooked the fig­ures to cam­ou­flage that it would bank­rupt the coun­try.

Nene and the Trea­sury’s for­mer direc­tor-gen­eral, Lungisa Fuzile, had to point out the flaws and dan­gers of the pre­sen­ta­tion.

Mem­bers of the cabi­net, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent and then deputy pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa, there­fore knew they were ap­prov­ing the deal based on the wrong cal­cu­la­tion.

This was the ab­sur­dity of the Zuma ad­min­is­tra­tion.

When peo­ple spoke up or op­posed the pres­i­dent’s wishes, they were shafted, re­de­ployed or fired.

On top of ef­fect­ing cabi­net reshuf­fles to deal with dis­si­dents, Zuma had an­other novel way to get his way — he sim­ply cir­cum­vented the des­ig­nated au­thor­ity of min­is­ters.

When Gord­han re­fused to in­ter­vene on the clo­sure of the Gupta ac­counts, Zuma ap­pointed an in­ter-min­is­te­rial cabi­net com­mit­tee led by for­mer min­eral re­sources min­is­ter Mosebenzi Zwane to do the dirty work and at­tempt to strong-arm the banks.

Dur­ing Malusi Gi­gaba’s stint as fi­nance min­is­ter, the Trea­sury said free higher ed­u­ca­tion was not fea­si­ble. Zuma des­ig­nated then min­is­ter in the pres­i­dency Jeff Radebe and his direc­tor-gen­eral Mpumi Mpofu to re­assess bud­gets across gov­ern­ment to find the funds. Radebe and Mpofu did not have the au­thor­ity to do so.

Nene’s op­po­si­tion to the nu­clear deal up to the day he was fired is com­mend­able. In the con­text of a cabi­net of toad­ies, some of whom were openly de­rid­ing him, it was not an easy stance to take.

But this does not ex­on­er­ate Nene from try­ing to con­form to anoma­lous prac­tices be­fore then. By go­ing to the Gupta com­pound on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions, Nene was try­ing to fit in with the pack. He wanted to stay on­side, which is also prob­a­bly why he has never spo­ken out against state cap­ture.

Nene apol­o­gised to the na­tion on Fri­day for vis­it­ing the Gupta com­pound and not be­ing forth­right about this.

“I should also have dis­closed early, and fully, the de­tails of these meet­ings, in par­tic­u­lar those that took place in Sax­on­wold,” said Nene.

The con­se­quences of Nene meet­ing the Gup­tas and not own­ing up to it un­til now is that un­like his ad­mirable ap­proach to the nu­clear deal, he abet­ted the func­tion­ing of the shadow state.

There are many of his for­mer and cur­rent col­leagues who have done the same and must also face up to the fact that they were aides in the cap­ture of the state.

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