It is perhaps a measure of how low the bar has been set in terms of the nation’s expectations of probity of our political leadership that almost without exception, commentators have leapt to Nhlanhla Nene’s defence following his expected but disappointing revelations made before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry.
This defence has been premised upon the widespread view of a courageous and isolated former minister to whom a great debt of gratitude is owed for “holding the line” by refusing to authorise the proposed Russian nuclear deal and in doing so, he saved our country from permanent fiscal penury.
Finally, it was left to President Cyril Ramaphosa to explain to the country that Nene had taken the decision to resign in the wake of errors of judgement, even though he had not been implicated in acts of wrongdoing.
The popular argument was that Nene’s “error of judgement”, being his misrepresentation to eNCA that he had never met the Guptas privately, was insignificant when compared with the proven misconduct of some other Cabinet ministers and all things being equal, his courage in refusing to sign the nuclear deal more than compensated for any minor indiscretion or act of wrongdoing.
In assessing errors of judgement or possible acts of wrongdoing by Cabinet ministers, it is useful to consider what the Constitution requires of them, especially when considering the position of finance minister which is second only in terms of national importance to that of the Office of the President.
The Constitution is exacting in its requirements with respect to Cabinet ministers’ conduct and there can be no ambiguity as to what is expected of any Cabinet appointee. Cabinet ministers must take the oath before assuming office and Section 92 (3) requires that members of the Cabinet must (a) act in accordance with the Constitution; and (b) provide Parliament with full and regular reports concerning matters under their control with Section 96 requiring that ministers act in accordance with a code of ethics and that they not act in any way which is inconsistent with their office, or expose themselves to any situation involving the risk of a conflict between their official responsibilities and private interests.
Against this backdrop it is worth considering possible errors of judgement by Nene and President Ramaphosa’s confirmed absence of wrongdoing during the term in which Nene served as deputy finance minister and then as finance minister in 2014/2015 and again in 2018.
It has been reported that Nene met the Guptas no less than 11 times between 2009 and 2014 and that as deputy finance minister he visited the Saxonwold compound at least four times and that later in 2014, as a fully-fledged finance minister, Nene visited the Gupta house on two further occasions.
One can understand a greenhorn deputy finance minister being cajoled into meeting the Guptas on a single occasion and in the event that “more meetings” were requested then it is inexplicable, given the media exposure of the Guptas even in the early days, that Nene could have agreed to meet them privately at their residence. Had Nene adhered to the code of conduct required of Cabinet ministers by the Constitution, then, at best he would have declined these meetings and at worst, he would only have met at his office and with relevant National Treasury officials present.
Nene clearly did not adhere to his constitutional responsibilities.
Compounding these “errors of judgement” is that it appears that Nene did not at any stage take his Treasury colleagues into his confidence and disclose the numerous private meetings he had at Saxonwold which further exacerbates his earlier public lies that he had never met the Guptas in private.
Nene, like a true politician, has been very careful about burnishing his public image and earlier this year it was reported that he wasn’t keen to be re-appointed but that he would be “accepting the role as an act of public service”. By accepting re-appointment, Nene would have known that as a star witness in the looming State Capture enquiry that he would no doubt be making revelations of his private meetings with the Guptas as a sitting minister of finance.
And if he never disclosed these meeting to President Ramaphosa prior to his appointment in February 2018 as has been reported, then what was Nene thinking? Was his judgement so poor that he thought he would get away with it and did he think that there would be no repercussions?
Meetings with the Guptas aside, the hollowing out of SARS during his 2014 / 2015 tenure as finance minister is equally disturbing. SARS is probably the most important moving part of National Treasury and the public silence displayed by Nene as SARS commissioner Tom Moyane proceeded to tear SARS apart was deafening.
We are all prone to errors of judgement and deserving of sympathy and forgiveness where we show contrition, but a higher level of responsibility is required by those seeking executive office and it is unacceptable for a Cabinet minister to consistently make the same mistakes and errors of judgement, to then lie about them, to fail to disclose them to colleagues and to the President prior to appointment (if this is indeed the case).
The fact that it took the Zondo Commission to winkle the truth out of Nene is confirmation that Nene never had any intention of full and appropriate disclosure – after all, he has had plenty of prior opportunities.
Surely, Nene’s conduct has been inconsistent with that required by our Constitution and it beggars belief that President Ramaphosa can claim that Nene’s admissions of errors of judgement do not constitute any evidence of wrongdoing.
Nene does not deserve gratitude or sympathy – by refusing to sign the nuclear deal he was simply doing his job as the Constitution dictates and if our expectation of the executive is now so low that we believe large debts of gratitude are necessary when Cabinet ministers do their jobs properly in accordance with the law, then we are well on our way to hell in a handbasket. DM
Simon Mantell runs a biscuit factory in Cape Town
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas