Five top writers on Nhlanhla Nene and the Gupta revelations
Justice Malala, Peter Bruce, Ranjeni Munusamy, Stuart Theobald and Ron Derby speak their minds on what Nhlanhla Nene’s brushes with the Guptas mean for his legacy
Here are extracts from five premium articles by our top writers published by BusinessLIVE on the controversy over Nhlanhla Nene. These articles are normally reserved for subscribers.
Writing in her Sunday Times column, republished by the Rand Daily Mail, Ranjeni Munusamy revealed how former minister of energy Tina Joemat-Pettersson cried in frustration when finance minister Nhlanhla Nene refused to sign off on the nuclear deal. She wrote:
Former minister of energy Tina Joemat-Pettersson was apparently in quite a state during the Brics summit in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015. When she returned to SA, she tearfully confided to some colleagues how she had to shuttle between then president Jacob Zuma and finance minister Nhlanhla Nene with a letter committing to a nuclear deal.
Zuma insisted that SA produce a document that would demonstrate to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the country was ready to proceed with the nuclear build programme.
Despite Joemat-Pettersson making amendments to the letter, Nene would not sign it as the deal would have long-term financial consequences for SA. It was also in violation of the Public Finance Management Act.
What Nene did not mention in his testimony to the Zondo commission was that Joemat-Pettersson was crying in frustration at his refusal to co-sign the letter. He also underplayed the situation by saying Zuma was “not happy” and “upset” by his unyielding attitude.
Zuma has a penchant for graphic Zulu phraseology, which might not have been appropriate to repeat to a judge.
Writing in Business Day, Peter Bruce described Nene’s testimony at the Zondo commission into state capture as “measured and credible”.
Let’s get this straight. We owe finance minister Nhlanhla Nene big time. He had the courage to stand up to the bullying of former president Jacob Zuma, and by simply refusing to bend the knee and sign what Zuma wanted him to sign, he saved us from certain fiscal disaster.
His testimony on Wednesday before judge Raymond Zondo’s inquiry into state capture was measured and credible. He recalled a meeting in his office in mid-2015 when his secretary pushed a note across his desk. “The president wants to see you,” it said. Nene indicated he’d go after the meeting. She came in again. Zuma meant come NOW.
“I left the meeting immediately,” he told the commission, “murmuring that perhaps I was going to be fired. On arrival, I found President Zuma with a senior Malaysian official from Engen/Petronas who I did not know. He explained that SA needed to own a refinery and that Petronas was prepared to sell its refinery to PetroSA. Further and most importantly, President Zuma stated that PetroSA would need a guarantee to be able to raise the funds and that as minister of finance, I would have to approve the guarantee.
“I indicated that I was not aware of this transaction but if I received an application from the entity via the relevant department, I would consider a guarantee subject to the normal evaluation process. It was at that point that President Zuma, in the presence of the Malaysian official connected to PetroSA, raised the issue of spies within Treasury.”
Also writing in Business Day, Stuart Theobald said Nene deserved credit for holding the line on the public purse.
Nene is a loyal ANC cadre who wants to do his job properly. But that implied a tortuous dissonance. What happens when those two ambitions could not be reconciled: when doing then president Jacob Zuma’s will was fundamentally at odds with doing one’s job?
In the case of Nene, we know the answer. When he was presented with a hastily drawn-up contract to tie the state to as much as a trillion rand of debt for the nuclear deal in 2015, he chose to do his job properly. He refused to sign. Of course, there are other cabinet members who went the other way in managing their own dissonant obligations. Nene was summarily dismissed for his decision, sparking an onslaught on the National Treasury that would still be on when Zuma fell. The price for doing one’s job was high.
Psychologists call it hindsight bias: the phenomenon of believing now that we were able to predict past events before they had occurred.
In his Times Select column republished by the Rand Daily Mail, Justice Malala said he believed it was “more than just tea” going on between Nene and the Guptas. Here’s an extract:
For many of us, finance minister Nhlanhla Nene is a hero. Yet, for years he has lied about his association with the Guptas. He sat and had tea with them – again and again and again. It was clearly more than just tea that was going on between them.
Who is next? Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of our country, was Jacob Zuma’s number two for three years. He was ANC deputy president for five years while state capture was on steroids. He has claimed that he did not know the extent of the rot. When the signs were so obvious? Will he be next to be found to have feet of clay?
We don’t know, but the question makes the lessons to be learnt from Aung San Suu Kyi and Nhlanhla Nene clear and numerous. First, no leader or political party is eternally or wholly incorruptible. We should not turn our political leaders into cults. Leaders are only “good” to the extent that they build and empower institutions of accountability in their countries.
Writing in Business Times, editor Ron Derby described Nene as a casualty of the Zuma years. He wrote:
The heroes in the “state capture” story line so far are of those men and women who rejected whatever instructions they received from the unofficial headquarters of state and party. The penalty for these people in the final, and rather desperate, years of Zuma’s presidency was there for all to see in the many midnight reshuffles.
Nene’s recall on that December evening three years ago cast him as one of these heroes in the battle against the capturing of the state. His axing was perhaps the most audacious powerplay by a rather desperate president to appease some important friends, among them Russian President Vladimir Putin. When the history books cover his presidency, they’ll mark that evening as the peak of his powers. Whatever little legitimacy it had was lost from that point.
Well that was what would have been in my first draft of any history about the decade of Zuma, with Nene’s role defined as that of the unassuming hero. This week has, however, changed the narrative. The integrity of our hero has been sullied, and by the man himself.
As I said earlier, I’ve come to accept that meeting the Gupta family was virtually unavoidable for the most senior ministers in Zuma’s cabinet and, to be fair, for the cabinets of his predecessor. What is disappointing, and especially for me as one of his chief backers, is that Nene chose to lie about the extent of his interactions with the family.