Opinionista Ferial Haffajee 7 October 2018

Nene’s 11 visits to the Guptas may sink him

Although his commitment may have saved South Africa R1.45-trillion on a nuclear deal, the fallout over multiple and unexplained visits to the Gupta family may cook Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s goose.

Who will present the all-important mini-budget on October 24th? Will it be Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene or another minister?

Rumours swirled on Sunday as Nene faced unprecedented scrutiny for his admission that he had been a regular visitor to the Gupta family mansion.

Nene met or visited the family 11 times from 2009 to 2014, none of which he disclosed upon being sworn in as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Finance Minister, a crucial position of trust as the Guptas had made an assault on the Treasury and attempted to place two or three finance ministers in power.

Nene first met the family at a presidential dinner after former president Jacob Zuma’s first State of the Nation Address in 2009. Then he toured their Sahara Computer offices twice in 2010. As deputy finance minister he visited their Saxonwold mansion four times but his testimony to the Zondo Commission of Inquiry last week also spoke of “later visits” related to the launch of the family’s newspaper, The New Age. It’s not clear if these were separate to or part of the four visits. In 2013, he visited their Midrand offices just ahead of the launch of their television channel, ANN7.

After becoming Minister of Finance in 2014, I went to their house on two occasions, around August and again in November 2014,” Nene revealed before the Zondo commission. The Sunday Times reported that Ramaphosa had been taken by surprise by this evidence as were Treasury officials when Nene first began to sketch a diary of his interactions with the family.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa played Cabinet-maker in February and chose his top team, Nene was not keen to rejoin Cabinet.

After being fired as finance minister by former president Jacob Zuma in December 2015, he had made a successful life in business and joined the boards of several companies including Thebe Investments of which he was also resident adviser. He was appointed a director at Allan Gray and also named as interim director of the Wits Business School. Nene was much in demand in the private sector.

Nene was not Ramaphosa’s first choice for finance minister. The former deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, who blew the whistle on the Gupta network’s offer to make him finance minister in Nene’s stead (and ahead of the December 2015 axing), turned the job down and so, reportedly, did Pravin Gordhan, who agreed to a single term as Public Enterprises Minister.

On the day the Cabinet was sworn in on 26 February, Nene said he had accepted the role as an act of public service. Eight months in, is Nene on his way out?

By Sunday, rumours swirled that Nene would resign or be axed as the revelations of his regular interactions with the Guptas raised questions of trust and integrity.

On Sunday, Treasury officials said they had not heard anything about a Cabinet reshuffle but said they believed Nene would offer to go under the storm of criticism.

The Sunday Times and City Press, South Africa’s largest and most influential Sunday titles, both reported that he should and would go.

Treasury staff said that Nene had been impacted by how his testimony before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture had been received by the country.

While the bulk of his evidence had focused on the inner workings of how the Treasury (and Nene himself) had frustrated the R1-trillion nuclear deal pushed persistently by former president Jacob Zuma and a cohort of his cronies in Cabinet, the visit to the Guptas appears to have cooked his goose.

On Friday, alarmed by the criticism, Nene issued a statement without consultation with his Treasury officials. In what sounded like a resignation letter, he stopped short of stepping down but said:

In return for the trust and faith that you have placed on 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 judgement. It is reasonable for 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 have disclosed early, and fully, the details of these meetings, in particular, those that took place in Saxonwold.

I, therefore, failed to live up to these ideals. These visits do cast a shadow on my conduct as a public office bearer. I deeply regret these lapses and beg your forgiveness.”

Nene had earlier lied to television interviewers when he denied the pace and scale of his visits to the Gupta family.

Nene said he had become suspicious of the Gupta family in 2013 when news of their mismanagement of the Estina dairy project had first come into evidence.

If Nene does fall on his sword, it will be the second time that the Gupta family is responsible for him losing his job.

In this testimony before the State Capture commission, Nene last week said:

I believe that I was removed from office because of my refusal to toe the line in relation to certain projects. In hindsight, it seems that those projects may have benefited the Gupta family and other close associates of the President (Zuma).”

The medium-term budget policy statement on 24 October is being keenly watched by rating agencies, notably Moody’s Investors Services which is expected to make a rating decision in October.

If Nene goes, two Gauteng politicians are in the running to take over. Incumbent deputy finance minister Mondli Gungubele is a seasoned politician who has worked in finance and economics. On Sunday, the name of Gauteng Finance MEC Barbara Creecy was also put into the mix as a potential successor. Creecy runs a competent provincial treasury in Gauteng. DM

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