Nene apol­ogy doesn’t re­deem him

Sunday Times - - Business Times - By PENELOPE MASHEGO and ASHA SPECK­MAN

● Fi­nance min­is­ter Nh­lanhla Nene has apol­o­gised for meet­ing the Gupta fam­ily.

His ad­mis­sion about sev­eral meet­ings was made at the Zondo com­mis­sion in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­le­ga­tions of state cap­ture.

The apol­ogy fol­lowed in a state­ment on Fri­day.

Nene told the com­mis­sion that he met the Gup­tas be­tween 2010 and 2014 at their busi­ness premises in Midrand and their Sax­on­wold com­pound in Jo­han­nes­burg.

His ev­i­dence con­tra­dicted pre­vi­ous as­ser­tions that he had met the fam­ily only at pub­lic events.

“In re­turn for the trust and faith that you have placed on [sic] me, I owe you con­duct as a pub­lic of­fice bearer that is be­yond re­proach. But I am hu­man too, I do make mis­takes, in­clud­ing those of poor judg­ment,” Nene said in the state­ment.

Rev­e­la­tions about the meet­ings have turned Nene from pub­lic dar­ling to per­sona non grata, with some on so­cial me­dia call­ing for his res­ig­na­tion.

Nene is no stranger to con­tro­versy as fi­nance min­is­ter. In De­cem­ber 2015, then pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma fired Nene, re­plac­ing him with Des van Rooyen.

Nene was reap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa ear­lier this year.

Nene’s tes­ti­mony to the com­mis­sion dealt a harsh blow to Ramaphosa’s bid to clean up the high lev­els of cor­rup­tion in the gov­ern­ment and re­store pub­lic trust.

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Ralph Mathekga de­scribed Nene’s apol­ogy as con­de­scend­ing. He said the min­is­ter ap­peared to be apol­o­gis­ing for meet­ing the Gup­tas out­side of his of­fice, not for meet­ing with them in the first place.

Mathekga said he did not ex­pect Nene to re­sign, but he be­lieved that it would be the right move be­cause it would be dif­fi­cult for him to re­gain pub­lic trust.

“There is no way that he can just es­cape this be­cause the prob­lem is that he with­held in­for­ma­tion,” said Mathekga

He said what made mat­ters worse was that when Zuma fired Nene in 2015, he had let the pub­lic, in­clud­ing Pravin Gord­han, fight for him, while he re­mained silent. Nene re­turned as a “mes­siah”.

How­ever, his rep­u­ta­tion was now lost and Mathekga said the prob­lem at this stage was that peo­ple did not know what Nene might not be dis­clos­ing.

Nene leav­ing his po­si­tion now could be a prob­lem be­cause he is due to present the medium-term bud­get pol­icy state­ment later this month. The coun­try finds it­self in a ten­u­ous po­si­tion, with rat­ings agen­cies keep­ing close tabs on state spend­ing.

In Zuma’s last term, the Trea­sury be­came a highly con­tested ter­rain be­cause of the pres­i­dent’s plans to em­bark on a nu­clear pro­cure­ment pro­gramme with Rus­sia’s Rosatom.

Over the past three years, the depart­ment of fi­nance has had five min­is­ters, in­clud­ing Nene’s two sep­a­rate stints. The un­cer­tainty around the depart­ment co­in­cided with a weak­en­ing fis­cal po­si­tion.

Rat­ings agency Moody’s had been ex­pected to make an an­nounce­ment re­gard­ing the coun­try’s rat­ings. Na­tional Trea­sury direc­tor-gen­eral Dondo Mo­ga­jane does not see the agency down­grad­ing the coun­try even if SA im­ple­ments only half the in­ter­ven­tions pro­posed at this week’s jobs sum­mit.

Moody’s is the only agency that has re­tained SA on in­vest­ment grade. S&P Global Rat­ings and Fitch down­graded SA to junk last year. This has in­creased the gov­ern­ment’s bor­row­ing costs slightly. Both agen­cies

‘I am hu­man too, I do make mis­takes, in­clud­ing those of poor judg­ment’

are ex­pected to up­date their rat­ings later this year.

Mo­ga­jane told Busi­ness Times on the side­lines of the pres­i­den­tial jobs sum­mit that the gov­ern­ment had a “good con­ver­sa­tion” with Moody’s last month when the agency held an in­vestor sum­mit in Jo­han­nes­burg.

“That tells me we are on a bet­ter foot­ing for now, but all that we need to do is to take ad­van­tage of the story that we had put out and the pack­age that we an­nounced a few weeks ago, in­clud­ing the [jobs sum­mit] frame­work agree­ment. Then we are in good shape.”

Mo­ga­jane was re­fer­ring to Ramaphosa’s an­nounce­ment last month that repri­ori­tised R50bn in the bud­get for job cre­ation. The state will set up an in­fra­struc­ture fund over the next three years with R400bn al­ready al­lo­cated in the bud­get and will also draw fi­nanc­ing from banks, pri­vate lenders and de­vel­op­ment fi­nance in­sti­tu­tions. The plan did not in­clude in­creased spend­ing and bor­row­ing.

Moody’s sched­uled a rat­ings re­view up­date for Fri­day but said in Septem­ber that this date was ten­ta­tive. Mo­ga­jane and Nene will be at­tend­ing the IMF/World Bank meet­ings in Bali, In­done­sia, from Fri­day to Sun­day.

● ➽

If there’s one univer­sal truth that we’ve gath­ered from the dis­as­trous pres­i­dency of Ja­cob Zuma it is that if you were of any use to him per­son­ally and in his pub­lic life, you had to at least meet one mem­ber of the in­fa­mous Gupta fam­ily. And if you were re­ally im­por­tant, those meet­ings weren’t merely at the master’s ta­ble at any ANC gath­er­ing, but in the con­fines of their fam­ily home in Sax­on­wold. To vary­ing de­grees, the sur­vival of any min­is­ter or state of­fi­cial was de­pen­dent on how happy the pres­i­dent’s in­ner cir­cle was with their per­for­mance. In the worst-case sce­nar­ios keep­ing Zuma’s friends happy was more im­por­tant than look­ing af­ter the state it­self. To serve in his ad­min­is­tra­tion, one had to meet these very im­por­tant friends, and if you were of a weak char­ac­ter, you’d bow to their will. So the fact that fi­nance min­is­ter Nh­lanhla Nene had met the for­mer first fam­ily (one can only hope that this is true) is by it­self no sur­prise. The fact that he and his one-time deputy, Mce­bisi Jonas, had at one stage vis­ited their com­pound in the leafy sub­urb of Sax­on­wold was less sur­pris­ing.

The ques­tion is what these pub­lic ser­vants did af­ter re­ceiv­ing in­struc­tions from the fam­ily. The he­roes in the “state cap­ture” story line so far are of those men and women who re­jected what­ever in­struc­tions they re­ceived from the un­of­fi­cial head­quar­ters of state and party. The penalty for these peo­ple in the fi­nal, and rather des­per­ate, years of Zuma’s pres­i­dency was there for all to see in the many mid­night reshuf­fles.

Nene’s re­call on that De­cem­ber evening three years ago cast him as one of these he­roes in the bat­tle against the cap­tur­ing of the state. His ax­ing was per­haps the most au­da­cious pow­er­play by a rather des­per­ate pres­i­dent to ap­pease some im­por­tant friends, among them Rus­sian

Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. When the his­tory books cover his pres­i­dency, they’ll mark that evening as the peak of his pow­ers. What­ever lit­tle le­git­i­macy it had was lost from that point.

Well that was what would have been in my first draft of any his­tory about the decade of Zuma, with Nene’s role de­fined as that of the unas­sum­ing hero. This week has, how­ever, changed the nar­ra­tive. The in­tegrity of our hero has been sul­lied, and by the man him­self.

As I said ear­lier, I’ve come to ac­cept that meet­ing the Gupta fam­ily was vir­tu­ally un­avoid­able for the most se­nior min­is­ters in Zuma’s cabi­net and, to be fair, for the cab­i­nets of his pre­de­ces­sor. What is dis­ap­point­ing, and es­pe­cially for me as one of his chief back­ers, is that Nene chose to lie about the ex­tent of his in­ter­ac­tions with the fam­ily.

“It is rea­son­able of the pub­lic to ex­pect pub­lic of­fice bear­ers to own up fully and timeously to the mis­takes they make in the course of car­ry­ing out their pub­lic du­ties. I should also have dis­closed early, and fully, the de­tails of these meet­ings, in par­tic­u­lar those that took place in Sax­on­wold,” Nene said in a Fri­day apol­ogy to the na­tion.

His vis­its, as he ad­mits, cast a shadow on his con­duct.

Why hide the ex­tent of your deal­ings with the fam­ily? It has only raised ques­tions of his judg­ment. Was the nu­clear stand against Zuma the only one he made? Were there other mo­ments where he rolled over to make the pres­i­dent’s friends happy? Given their in­volve­ment and amount of dam­age in the state-owned en­ter­prises such as SAA and Eskom, which moved un­der the um­brella of the Trea­sury since 2014, I now have to won­der how much Nene did tac­itly al­low to hap­pen for po­lit­i­cal pru­dence, while fight­ing it out on the sur­face with peo­ple such as Dudu Myeni.

Re­cently there was a New York Times opin­ion piece in which some pub­lic ser­vants in the Don­ald Trump pres­i­dency talked about their be­hind-the-scenes roles in keep­ing the coun­try safe from the worst traits of their pres­i­dent. Are these men and women he­roes, or cow­ards? I am with the lat­ter on this, for to be brave would be to re­sign en masse and ex­pose the malfea­sance in the White House.

In the case of Nene, I was sure he chose the braver op­tion, but now that he has lied about the ex­tent of his re­la­tions with his for­mer master’s most ne­far­i­ous friends, he acted as cow­ardly as the “he­roes” in the White House.

When we even­tu­ally close the chap­ter of the Zuma years, Nene’s pub­lic life will have to be a ca­su­alty if a New Dawn is to ever emerge.

He acted as cow­ardly as the ‘he­roes’ in the White House

Pic­ture: Reuters

Fi­nance min­is­ter Nh­lanhla Nene, seen here at the Zondo com­mis­sion of in­quiry into state cap­ture, has is­sued a writ­ten apol­ogy for not com­ing clean about his meet­ings with the Gupta fam­ily. He told the com­mis­sion he had met the Gup­tas sev­eral times at their busi­ness premises in Midrand and their Sax­on­wold home.

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