Dubbed Project Spider Web, the document would spell out a range of key staff changes at Treasury, supposedly to be implemented with the aid of then Barclays Bank group CEO, Maria Ramos.
The bizarre report alleged that South African old-money families, the Ruperts and the Oppenheimers, had funded a plot by old guard intelligence types to retain control of South Africa’s finances during the dying days of apartheid.
The sinister document, purportedly containing a grand Treasury plan, referred to Ramos as the “Queen of Leaves,” as finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene’s supposed “handler,” and mentioned the names of various senior Treasury officials, including then deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, then DG Lungisa Fuzile, Andrew Donaldson, Kenneth Brown and Ismail Momoniat among others.
The objective of Treasury, according to this alleged plot document, was supposedly to influence the design and implementation of economic and fiscal policy, appointments at the Reserve Bank, Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and state owned companies – and attacking and prosecuting critics of “Project Spider Web”.
The document, origins unknown, would be disseminated to certain officials at Treasury.
It surfaced a mere month after former president Jacob Zuma allegedly told Nene, that this crucial government department had in its midst, apartheid-era spies and agents of White Monopoly Capital.
Testifying before the State Capture inquiry on Wednesday morning, Nene explained that when he first got sight of the document, it had reminded him of Zuma’s earlier remarks.
“I dismissed it as a conspiracy theory. However, it was clear to me that the Treasury did not enjoy the confidence of the president.”
Nene testified that Zuma had made similar comment to him during a meeting he was summoned to a few weeks earlier.
During a meeting with Fuzile at the Treasury office, his PA, Mary Marumo, slipped him a note that Zuma wanted to see him.
Assuming he could call back and arrange a meeting, Nene sent word back with her to that effect.
Marumo returned with another note, this time that he needed to go and see Zuma “now!”.
The finance minister immediately cut short the meeting with Fuzile, murmuring that perhaps he was going to be fired, and rushed off to see Zuma.
“On arrival, I found President Zuma with a senior Malaysian official from Engen/Petronas who I did not know. He explained to me that South Africa needed to own a refinery and that Petronas was prepared to sell its refinery to PetroSA.
“Further, and more importantly, President Zuma stated that PetroSA would need a guarantee to be able to raise the funds and, as minister of Finance, I would have to approve the guarantee.”
Nene told his boss that he was not aware of such a transaction and that if he was to receive an application for a guarantee from PetroSA for it, he would consider it subject to normal evaluation processes.
“It was at that point that President Zuma, in the presence of the Malaysian official raised the issue of spies within Treasury. This was about a month before the Project Spider Web document surfaced.”
Nene said he briefed Fuzile about his meeting with Zuma upon his return and warned him about a possible application that might come to Treasury in relation to the Petronas/PetroSA discussion he had had with Zuma.
The Project Spider Web document was referred to the State Security Agency for investigation and bar one or two requests for access to staff emails, Nene told the Commission nothing ever came of it.
Treasury did put out a media statement dismissing the content of the document as baseless and vexatious, designed to sew seeds of suspicion and possibly sought to undermine the functioning of this critical institution.
Nene’s revelations about Zuma’s shocking statement, in the presence of a foreign businessman, formed part of his testimony before deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, chairman of the State Capture Inquiry.
Nene confirmed earlier testimony by Jonas about how Jonas had told him of the alleged R600-million bribe one of the Gupta brothers had made to him along with the offer to make him finance minister.
Nene was fired as the country’s finance minister during his first stint in the job in December 2015.
And, his sacking, he testified, was directly related to his refusal to sign a letter binding South Africa to substantial financial commitments for the controversial new nuclear build programme during a BRICS meeting in Russia five months earlier.
Nene also confirmed having had various meetings with the Guptas over the course of four years – none of which, he says, were out of the ordinary.
He said that he had first met Ajay Gupta during a banquet after the State of the Nation Address in 2009.
The Gupta patriarch appeared important as he sat at the “high table” at the event and introduced himself at at a subsequent meeting at the Gupta-owned Sahara Computers as “an adviser” to former president Jacob Zuma.
Nene confirmed that he had several meetings, mainly at the invitation of the older Gupta brother – one of those, he says, involved an invitation for “tea” at the family’s Saxonwold compound.
The Guptas, he testified, never asked him for anything but did at one stage lobby for government business in the run-up to the launch of their media operations and then, when they were shafted by media mogul, Iqbal Surve.
This was after Surve allegedly reneged on a deal to partner with them after he secured substantial cash from the Public Investment Corporation. The Guptas told him that Surve allegedly told them the PIC funding precluded him from partnering with them.
Nene, in his previous capacity as deputy finance minister, was a non-executive director of the PIC and chaired the board.
He said he told the Guptas that Treasury had no involvement with Surve’s PIC loan and that it would be best for them to approach the PIC directly.
The hearing continues. DM
Read Nene’s full statement to the Zondo Commission