EDITORIAL: Tragedy of a good man’s downfall
The toxic touch of the Guptas led to compromising at least one good man, leading to his fall
So within one crazy whirlwind week, the seemingly unimpeachable Nhlanhla Nene has resigned as finance minister, and been replaced by former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni. It seems scarcely credible but in a sense, President Cyril Ramaphosa had no choice but to do this.
Nene’s fall echoes the cautionary tale of Simon Peter — the disciple who lied about knowing Jesus, when it was ruinous to admit any connection, but who later repented. Peter was forgiven, and Jesus subsequently declared Peter to be "the rock" on which his church was built.
Last week, Nene admitted at the state capture commission that he’d had cosy chats with the Gupta family at their home on half a dozen occasions, from 2010 to 2014. He then apologised for doing that. But there it was: when asked about it by journalists months earlier, he’d claimed he’d never met the Guptas at their house.
Unfortunately, there was little chance that someone who had been caught in a blatant lie and lost the public’s trust could continue as their finance minister. But that doesn’t mean that Nene is corrupt — just that he is human.
Ramaphosa, in announcing Mboweni’s elevation, was effusive about Nene’s strong character, saying he acted diligently and bravely. "He served our people under very difficult circumstances, often coming under great pressure, but he consistently defended the cause of proper financial management and clean governance," he said.
So, how can we be so sure Nene is not corrupt? We can’t, of course. Once someone has told one lie, they might as well have told a thousand.
After all, there were persistent rumours that Nene, as chair of the Public Investment Corp (PIC), went to bat for the Guptas when the family wanted a stake in Independent Newspapers. Questions are also being asked about his son’s involvement in a bid to get the PIC to invest in a Mozambican oil refinery.
On the other hand, if Nene was malleable, why did former president Jacob Zuma risk the ire of the ANC, society and the markets by firing him in December 2015?
After all, Nene had said that fiscal discipline was "the name of the game" for the entire time he served at the National Treasury. "The National Treasury held the line on everything and said, ‘no’ where it needed to say, ‘no’," he told the FM six months after he was fired. Nene’s nickname, in fact, was "Mr No" among his colleagues — hardly the moniker of a bendable bureaucrat.
It is clear that Nene was an obstacle to Zuma. He refused to endorse the 9,600MW nuclear programme, SAA’s leasing deal with Airbus, and a dodgy bid by PetroSA to buy a stake in Engen. Nene was fired for insisting on fiscal discipline.
It is precisely because Nene is not corrupt that it was so painful to listen to those baying for his blood as if he was just another member of Zuma’s goon squad. His departure is deeply unsettling because the miscreants who destroyed entire departments and institutions, like Bathabile Dlamini, Malusi Gigaba and Nomvula Mokonyane, remain in the cabinet. Gigaba also appointed numerous Gupta lieutenants and lied under oath.
Nene is probably the only ANC politician who ever issued a national apology for telling a lie, begged for forgiveness and asked to be fired.
So, Nene is now gone — the largest, most unexpected casualty of the state capture commission. Tito Mboweni, at least, is a solid replacement, who will be welcomed by the business lobby. But still, the story will always be remembered as something of a tragic tale, in which the toxic touch of the Guptas led to compromising at least one good man, leading to his fall.