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.