Pieter du Toit

Pleasing Putin: Nene's revelations show how corrupted Zuma's government was

2018-10-03 18:03
Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene. (Gallo Images/Deon Raath)

Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene. (Gallo Images/Deon Raath)

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In the book "Fear", Watergate journalist Bob Woodward's extraordinary account of the first 18 months of the presidency of Donald Trump, he sketches a picture of a president totally ignorant of how government works and what the tenets of good governance entail. It is filled with accounts of Trump dismissing advice, steamrolling officials and making impossible demands.

Trump demands that the United States withdraw from the World Trade Organisation because he believes America gets a raw deal, even though his officials tell him otherwise. And he questions why his government spends billions of dollars on security for South Korea, without understanding its importance for global stability.

Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene's testimony on Wednesday to the state capture commission showed that there seem to be stark similarities between Trump's White House and the government that Jacob Zuma presided over between 2009 and 2018. Zuma time and again simply ignored laws, policy and practice and pursued an agenda not in line with his constitutional duties, which are to advance the interests of the country, not the interests of Zuma.

Nene's account of how Zuma attempted to force the nuclear deal during a meeting at a Brics summit in Russia was every bit as riveting as any scene in Woodward's book. Then energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson twice produced a letter for Nene's signature which would have committed South Africa's fiscus to a Russian nuclear build programme, and twice he refused. Not only was it unaffordable, but the necessary studies and analysis were never done. Nene felt he couldn't commit the country's taxpayers to such a plan. 

It angered Zuma and caused anxiety for Joemat-Pettersson who, according to Nene, wanted to give something to Zuma so that he could at least give Russian hard man President Vladimir Putin something. But Nene refused, and it led to a breakdown in the relationship between him and the president. Zuma was livid, Joemat-Pettersson submissive and Treasury was under attack.

It is clear from Nene's account that Zumasimply did not care – if he ever understood – what proper process and procedure in government meant. National Treasury, whose responsibilities and functions are prescribed by the Constitution, was simply shifted to one side and ignored when Zuma's government decided to go ahead and procure nuclear power stations capable of producing 9.6 GW of electricity. Treasury repeatedly said that besides the fact that it was unaffordable, Joemat-Pettersson's department had failed to produce either a feasibility study or a financing model, which was a requirement. 

Nene told Deputy Chief Justice Ray Zondo that costs would be "astronomical" and given the size of the country's economy and Treasury's projected spending on the project, it would be the largest capital investment project by any government anywhere in the world. It was so big it could have consumed the whole 2016 budget and would have had a severe impact on spending programmes like social grants. 

The finance minister's testimony made it clear nothing that he said made an impression on Zuma, who showed a singular determination to please Putin and ensure that his government committed this generation and the following ones to pay for Russian nuclear power stations. Nene, in answer to a question from Zondo, said: "I don't think the president appreciated the actual financial implications… I felt issues around financial implications were secondary… I'm not sure he appreciated the legal requirements."

Zuma not only didn't care for governance, according to Nene, he also didn't care about due process. "There was a lack of appreciation (by Zuma) about what needed to be done in the time between the Cabinet meeting (where he was tasked with preparing a memorandum on the possibility of a nuclear build programme) and the Russia meeting. I found the lack of appreciation strange… it was as if only the minister of finance didn't discharge his duties. Information was lacking from the department of energy, but it was Treasury that was under pressure."

Nene and Treasury were subject to a whispering and disinformation campaign and there was open hostility to the Finance team from the president and members of his Cabinet. The national executive, with the concurrence of the then deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, approved Joemat-Pettersson's nuclear plans, without due diligence being done and without regard for legislation. In the end Zuma, abusing his constitutional authority as head of state, simply lied to get rid of Nene, promising him another job which never materialised. 

Zuma seems to have run his government like a mafia, riding roughshod over process and procedure, law and legality. "Look, you reach a point where you've done everything humanly possible to express a view, where there's just no point anymore," Nene said. "Treasury's views were completely excluded… I had expended all my fighting power."

Nene resisted and even though he was felled, the nuclear deal was stopped. South Africa came very, very close to the brink. 

- Pieter du Toit is News24's assistant editor for in-depth news.

Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  vladimir putin  |  nhlanhla ­nene
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