Lungisa Fuzile had called to congratulate Van Rooyen on his appointment and to suggest – in the wake of the rand taking a pounding following news of Nhlanhla Nene’s sacking the previous night – that they prepare a statement to allay investor concerns.
The former ANC back bencher turned down the suggestion, instead telling him “sternly,” that Treasury officials have a tendency to issue statements and that must come to an end.
“I was astounded by the reaction,” Fuzile told the State Capture inquiry on Thursday.
He said he had only been concerned about the impact of the tumbling rand against a multitude of factors, including the fact that government raises anything between R9-billion and R11-billion a week via different instruments, as do other entities in the broader economy.
A weakened rand signalled serious trouble for the economy –the crisis triggered by Nene’s firing was sufficiently significant that Van Rooyen lasted for all of four days before being replaced by Pravin Gordhan.
“I had only suggested that he considers putting out a statement. We will have drafted something… and he would have had to okay anyway.”
At the time there was huge speculation about what had led to Nene’s firing and Van Rooyen’s appointment so Fuzile thought a statement could be issued to dispel negative notions.
“Even if he had a different message, the country and the world would then have known where he stood.”
Earlier in the week, former finance minister, Pravin Gordhan told the commission that figures released by Bloomberg showed the rand had lost R1.31 to the US dollar between 9 December 2015 when Nene was fired and the four days with Van Rooyen as minister.
This, Fuzile testified, was a moment of crisis that required leadership and intervention by the incumbent finance minister.
But instead of appreciating this, Van Rooyen’s reaction instead conveyed an “excessive preoccupation with authority” and that officials of Treasury were seen as behaving in a manner that needed to be stopped.
It appeared that Van Rooyen had not come to terms about his new role and that he was oblivious to the currency crisis and the role he could have played to mitigate this.
The statement he suggested was also to help prepare Van Rooyen for a press briefing later that day as the Treasury team didn’t want him to face the media unprepared.
They wanted him to be able to respond coherently and convincingly in order to protect the institution of the National Treasury.
Van Rooyen, it seems, had other more pressing matters on his mind.
And his intentions soon became clear as Fuzile found himself virtually cold-shouldered hours later while attending Van Rooyen’s official swearing-in ceremony. Fuzile was in fact among several senior Treasury officials whom the Guptas had allegedly asked former deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, to get rid of in exchange for a R600-million bribe.
Fuzile testified that upon arrival at the Union Buildings as he made his way to the event room, an unknown man approached and greeted him. The man introduced himself as Mo Bobat, Van Rooyen’s new adviser.
While the commission has not heard testimony to this effect, Bobat is a former employee of Gupta-linked Regiments Capital though he played a key role, according to whistle-blowers, in the early days of the controversial Trillian Capital Partners.
Bobat’s announcement, said Fuzile, stunned him briefly until he recalled having been told the night before to prepare for the arrival of a Gupta minister and “Indian advisers”.
The law permits a minister to appoint up to two advisers but this must be motivated for and considered against available budget.
The person responsible for entering into a contract with a ministerial adviser is the DG. In this case, Van Rooyen had not even been to Treasury, had not been sworn in, had not had a discussion with Fuzile about the prospect of hiring advisers.
“Here is someone I would traditionally have appointed, now informing me that he was now employed,” Fuzile said.
Bobat wasted no time as he started issuing instructions to him.
“He said to me ‘I would require a statement from you to be issued by the minister’.”
This, Fuzile said, was in direct conflict with what Van Rooyen had told him when he rebuked him earlier on.
Asked whether it was normal for an adviser to issue instructions to a DG, Fuzile said it was “abnormal and illegal”.
“Mr Bobat did not care about protocol or civilities. He appeared determined to assert his authority over me. He was not bothered that he was not an employee in the department and that his role had not been explained to me.”
Bobat, he said, seemingly felt such a sense of authority or empowerment that he could issue instructions without first checking with the minister.
“He gave me the impression of being a law unto himself.”
As Bobat got bossy, Van Rooyen arrived for the ceremony at the Union Buildings and Fuzile says the two men greeted each other.
Then, Bobat told Van Rooyen that he had tried to call him but that he did not answer.
But bizarrely, the incumbent minister said this was because he did not recognise the number.
With Bobat seeming agitated at that response, Fuzile told the commission it appeared to him that there was a clear lack of familiarity between the two, that they didn’t know each other else, not for very long.
When evidence leader, senior advocate Vincent Maleka hinted that Van Rooyen may or may not come to testify about these oddities, deputy chief justice, Raymond Zondo said: “Everyone who is seriously implicated will testify, they may decide to come or I will call them.”
Having watched the brief encounter between Van Rooyen and his adviser, Fuzile says it then dawned on him that while the minister had pulled rank on his DG right from the onset, it transpired that his own adviser was calling the shots over his head.
“He (Van Rooyen) puts me down on one level like I deserve to be put in my place. Now, here comes Bobat who behaved rather impolitely to me… talking to the minister as if the roles had been reversed… as if he was in charge,” Fuzile said.
Once sworn in, Van Rooyen left the room with Jacob Zuma and when he returned, Fuzile says he and Bobat once again interacted as Bobat congratulated the new minister. Van Rooyen ignored his attempt to shake his hand.
Later, he was called to a meeting with Van Rooyen in his office and when he arrived, there were Bobat and two others, introduced to him as Ian Whitley and Malcolm Mabaso, neither of who he had ever met.
“During the meeting, Van Rooyen instructed me to expedite the appointment of his adviser and Chief of Staff.”
But, he had pointed at Bobat as the “chief of staff” and his new adviser quickly corrected him by stating: “No, I’m the adviser.”
Fuzile says he suspects that the Chief of Staff post may have sounded more senior to Van Rooyen hence he assumed it was a title allocated to Bobat until corrected.
He said it was thought unlikely that the former minister could have been so confused between the roles allocated to Bobat and Whitley unless he really didn’t know them properly – this suggests, Van Rooyen may not have chosen this duo himself.
“This suggested that Mabaso was simply going to lurk around National Treasury unofficially.
“I objected to that, very firmly. Then Van Rooyen responded, in a way that shocked me, no it annoyed me.
“He said ‘no you must just facilitate this thing, you are just a DG’.”
The DG then reminded him of his duties as the accounting officer of that department and suggested that the lot of them go and study the ministerial handbook.
Fuzile then explained how Van Rooyen, during a meet and greet with the Treasury executive team thereafter, introduced Bobat and Whitley as middlemen between him and everyone else.
This while the law is clear about the powers and role of advisors and that of the DG as the accounting officer.
The newbies seemingly wasted no time proving their worth to Gupta Inc.
A mere 24 hours later they allegedly illegally disseminated a confidential or classified Treasury document that had been prepared for Cabinet.
Whitley went first, sending Bobat and Mabaso a copy of the sensitive document containing key pointers that would inform Cabinet’s position on the status of the economy along with potential remedies. He attached it to an email saying, ‘Gents, finally….”
Bobat, within three minutes of receiving it, forwarded it to his former boss, Trillian CEO, Eric Wood. He also copied a controversial email address: [email protected].
There has been speculation about whether this email belongs to Gupta kingpin, Salim Essa, or former Public Enterprises DG, Richard Seleke or whether it was merely a non-descript email address used to route information to the Gupta network.
Fuzile testified the intention was for Whitley to make sure the document reached Van Rooyen, new in his position, to have a look at it and if necessary, to add his thoughts before it was sent to Cabinet.
“Like most of what we deal with at Treasury, the information contained in that document was about the strategic thinking or shaping the thinking of Cabinet on how to understand the sluggishness of the economy, the causes thereof and opportunities for things to exploit to accelerate growth.”
“It was not intended for anyone other than those within the department with the right level of security clearance,” Fuzile testified.
By then Bobat and Whitley had not even had their employment contracts drawn up and nor had they been vetted, as required, by the State Security Agency.
Advocate Maleka said the Commission’s investigators are zooming in on some of the plans highlighted in the document, especially one relating to the role that state-owned enterprises were envisaged to play in a rail project between South Africa, Swaziland, and Mozambique.
The Commission resumes at 2pm on Friday for the testimony of Dondo Mogojane, a veteran at National Treasury, who took over as DG with the departure of Fuzile earlier this year. DM