Former Cabinet minister, advocate Ngoako Ramatlhodi, was fearless, unapologetic and straight as he told the State Capture inquiry that he was fired as a minister – twice – for refusing to give in to former president Jacob Zuma and the Guptas.
This long-time ANC NEC member and former private secretary to the late former ANC president, Oliver Tambo, also laid bare how Zuma and an unrelenting faction within the highest decision-making body of the party rode roughshod over everyone else by drowning them out.
And how Zuma, allegedly, ultimately enabled this by imposing minority views as decisions.
The paralysis of the NEC was so mad, especially during Zuma’s second term as party president, that many dissenters among the 80-odd members who disagreed simply shut up and resigned themselves to the status quo.
“We could not understand this grip the Guptas had on Zuma. They were like a python wrapped around him.”
Refusing to play ball
Ramatlhodi was appointed the minister of mineral resources in May 2014 and held the position for just 16 months before he was fired the first time.
This, he testified, was as a result of his refusal to aid the Guptas and their enablers in their efforts to snatch Optimum Coal Mine from commodities giant, Glencore, so the Guptas could buy it.
Ramatlhodi testified on Wednesday how former Eskom chairman, Ben Ngubane, had come to the the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) in early September 2015 to “demand” that he revoke Glencore’s mining licence under the guise that the company owed Eskom R2-billion.
Taking into account the potential impact on jobs and the fact that South Africa was in the midst of an electricity crisis, Ramatlhodi told him this could not be done without a thorough assessment or negotiations.
But Ngubane, he said, wanted an immediate answer because he allegedly needed to “report back” to Zuma, who was about to leave the country.
“My impression was that he had been sent by the president else he would not have had to ‘report back’.”
“But you are the minister,” Ngubane allegedly told him when the senior ANC member pushed back.
When it became clear that Ramatlhodi would not budge, Ngubane allegedly said he would be telling Zuma.
A few weeks later Ramatlhodi was called to a meeting with Zuma at his official residence, Mahlamba Ndlopfu, where the former president told him what a great job he had been doing at the DMR.
And then, in that same meeting, he fired him, even billing his transfer to Public Service and Administration as a “promotion”.
“I had refused to co-operate with him at the DMR because I felt we were doing a good job and were being forced to do wrong things. The ‘promotion’ was punishment, to send a message to others,” he said.
With Ramatlhodi out of the way, Gupta acolyte Mosebenzi Zwane stepped in as minister of mineral resources.
And in no time, the Glencore problem was resolved, thanks to additional pressure from the then Eskom bosses and personal intervention from Zwane who travelled to Zurich to meet with Glencore to facilitate the deal.
They wanted Mzwanele Manyi as DG
At Public Service, Ramatlhodi would once again be fired – this time, he said, for having refused to rubber-stamp Zwane’s request that Mzwanele Manyi be appointed as the new director-general at the DMR.
He told the inquiry that the DG who had served under him (and prior to his arrival at the DMR) was effectively worked out three months after his dismissal.
Regulations require that senior government appoints, like those of DGs, go through the minister of public service who would then prepare a Cabinet memo to finalise it.
When Zwane’s paperwork for Manyi’s appointment arrived, Ramatlhodi was unable to authorise it as the former government spin doctor did not meet the minimum requirements for the job as it had been advertised.
Besides, said Ramatlhodi: The manner in which executive and senior appointments were sometimes made was questionable.
Suggesting that he had read between the lines, he said: “They would bring them in as twins, a minister and a DG.”
Zwane informally enquired about his reason for this only once and nothing came of it.
But Manyi, he testified, had asked his adviser whether he had issues with him and was told this was not the case, that the decision was purely based on the fact that he didn’t qualify in terms of the job specifications.
He said his adviser, advocate Mahlodi Muofhe, told him of the discussion, and the matter was closed. Muofhe later testified in person.
The Guptas, Ramatlhodi said, had tried “from all angles” to try to meet him after he became mining minister in 2014.
They allegedly sought to discuss the DMR buying more copies of The New Age and for him to attend their government-sponsored TV breakfasts.
But he told the commission that he had always been disturbed by their 2013 Waterkloof aircraft landing scandal and saw no reason to meet with them.
“That plane landing at the Airforce base, it was such a stab in the back for those who have died (in the struggle for freedom).
“They were showing off; they are not presidents but they can land here.”
He testified to two instances when Duduzane Zuma himself tried to push for him to see the Guptas.
The young Zuma allegedly cornered him on the sidelines of an ANC NEC meeting, claiming there were rumours that Ramatlhodi had been badmouthing him and his business associates.
“He later mentioned Ajay Gupta,” said Ramatlhodi, explaining that he understood Duduzane’s business partners to mean the Gupta brothers.
He said he told the young man he would not be running around doing that.
“I won’t even tell your father. I’ll just summon you to explain what you’re up to.”
Duduzane allegedly said he had already spoken to his father.
“He then suggested I meet with Ajay Gupta and I told him I won’t see him as I had not been badmouthing anyone.
“My own reflection is that they had tried to meet me for a long time and maybe they created this drama as a ruse to try and see me.”
He says he then told Zuma about the conversation and was told not to worry.
He said a distressed-sounding Duduzane contacted him a second time for an urgent meeting. This time, when he asked his staff what this could be about, they told him there was a crisis at one of the Gupta-owned mines that could put their licence at risk.
Again Ramatlhodi refused to budge. Instead he arranged to see Zuma senior and told him: “I am (like) a court of appeal. Nobody can come straight to me.”
He says he told Zuma to tell his son to stop calling him and to engage with officials in the department directly.
“I didn’t see Duduzane again.”
‘He has auctioned off executive authority’
Like several other witnesses, Ramatlhodi told the commission that the Guptas had the power to summon the president to their home, so too many ministers “who were wet behind the ears”.
He also said that when he first arrived at the DMR, he was told that the DG and all the DDGs would sometimes be hosted by the Guptas at their Cape Town home during the annual mining indaba.
“They would then call other people (investors) to come there to demonstrate their power.”
Ramatlhodi said he made it clear that would not happen under his watch.
He said he believed his then predecessor, Susan Shabangu, may be aware of this but said she could speak for herself.
The power of the Guptas was of great concern to many in the ANC NEC.
“We would raise this with Zuma and ask: ‘why don’t you end it?’”
But, said Ramatlhodi, the former president would tell them: “Those people are my friends, they helped my children when I was persona non grata. When no one wanted to help me.”
He said while aware of the destructive nature of this costly friendship, there were many ANC members who were not only deeply uncomfortable about it, they also believed it was humiliating Zuma and so they felt sorry for him.
On 1 April 2017 Ramatlhodi woke up, with his wife telling him, “You are no longer a minister, Baba.”
That is how he found out about his second axing at the hands of Zuma, a man he still considers a longtime friend and comrade.
Ramatlhodi said he links both his dismissals to his refusal to entertain the Guptas and for putting a spanner in the wheel when they tried to appoint Manyi, one of the Gupta family’s biggest supporters.
And then, for having made a public statement (after Zuma called former finance minister Pravin Gordhan back from an investor roadshow abroad in 2017) saying he hoped that those who made decisions about the leadership of Gordhan would consider the interest of the country, and that Zuma, in particular, would address the issue with this in mind.
That, he said, may have been the final nail in his Cabinet coffin.
Ramatlhodi said he told an NEC meeting that Zuma had “auctioned off” executive authority and that he had given it to a third party (the Guptas).
“The bigger sin here was that we were going to inherit an empty state.”
Asked by commission chairman, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, why it had taken the rest of the NEC so long to get a grip on the situation, Ramatlhodi said this was because Zuma had strong backing – many of them beneficiaries of the Guptas.
“They had the upper hand because they were aligned to the (former) president,” he said. DM