The last stand: Saluting the heroes who defended the Treasury from capture

There was a brave bad of brothers, who defended the Treasury against state capture. The country owes them a huge debt of gratitude. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images
There was a brave bad of brothers, who defended the Treasury against state capture. The country owes them a huge debt of gratitude. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images

South Africans are heavily indebted to a special band of current and former civil servants at Treasury who successfully prevented the institution from being captured by the Guptas and other rapacious tenderpreneurs.

In the normal course of business, there would be no need to thank the likes of former finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas, current minister Nhlanhla Nene, former director-general Lungisa Fuzile, former chief procurement officer Kenneth Brown and that office’s governance, monitoring and compliance acting chief director Solly Tshitangano, former budget chief Michael Sachs, former public finance deputy director-general Andrew Donaldson, tax chief Ismail Momoniat and financial management director Schalk Human.

As Tshepo Sethokga pointed out on Twitter yesterday, these officials averted state capture in the course of their daily duties.

But knowing how the Guptas, another band of thieves and their political proxies swept through like a summer tornado, disembowelling Eskom, Transnet, South African Airways, Denel, SA Express, the water and sanitation department, the South African Revenue Service, the police, Hawks and State Security Agency, and the Free State and North West provinces, it is safe to conclude that these were extraordinary times. Like a hen fending off a ravenous eagle, these bureaucrats, and many other unacclaimed colleagues in the same ministry, took a stand against the Guptas, who were looming large with the full assurance that they had backing from the highest office in the land.

While in the process of hollowing out the institutions named above, the Gupta family’s political proxy – former president Jacob Zuma – must have realised that for the capture project to be complete, leashing Treasury was a must. And he launched a series of audacious campaigns to capture Treasury.

Without Treasury under tight control, the project to capture the state would suffer significant setbacks. Not only does Treasury allocate each department its annual budget but, through the public finance unit, the ministry also monitors government expenditure and reins in wayward ministers, directors-general and chief executives of state-owned entities.

Being the custodian and at the centre of all government procurement, through the office of the chief procurement officer, Treasury monitors compliance with tender regulations and is able to refuse government departments permission to break the rules.

Several attempts at treasury

A number of senior government bureaucrats said that Zuma realised shortly after the formation of the office of the chief procurement officer, in 2013, that the unit would be a stumbling block to his plans. One former Treasury employee told me that “Zuma suggested that the office of the chief procurement officer be removed from Treasury and be stationed in his office. The move was resisted and it failed.”

After failing to wrest control of the office of the chief procurement officer, in December 2015 Zuma axed Nene, in a move which sent the rand and the financial markets in a tailspin.

It is an open secret that Zuma had set his eyes on the nuclear build programme which energy analysts claim would have cost South Africa north of R1 trillion.

Testifying at the Zondo state capture commission of inquiry yesterday, Nene said he believed one of the reasons Zuma axed him was that he wouldn’t sanction the nuclear deal, which would have benefited the Gupta family.

So desperate was Zuma for the nuclear deal to go through that, after he realised that he was not having his way with Treasury, he moved the procurement of the nuclear deal from the department of energy to Eskom through the presidential state owned companies coordinating council. It was a strategic and calculated move.

Chopping and changing ministers was clearly not working. Zuma came up with another strategy – remove the budgeting process from Treasury and locate it in his office, possibly to sneak his projects via the back door.

In September 2015 the department of public enterprises, under the leadership of Lynne Browne (a Gupta associate herself), appointed Brian Molefe as Eskom chief executive.

In November 2016 former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report revealed that Molefe had ties to the Guptas and communicated with them on a regular basis.

In April last year City Press revealed that the department of energy had wanted to procure the nuclear deal directly from foreign governments through intergovernmental agreements. The deal fell through after Gordhan and Jonas obtained legal opinion, which found that such agreements were illegal and against Section 217 of the Constitution.

Through the intervention of civil society organisations, and the Right2Know Campaign, the nuclear deal fell through the cracks, but not before Zuma axed Gordhan and Jonas, who were also vehemently opposed to the deal.

Chopping and changing ministers was clearly not working. Zuma came up with another strategy – remove the budgeting process from Treasury and locate it in his office, possibly to sneak his projects via the back door.

Of that decision, a senior Treasury official had told City Press at the time that “for anyone who wants resources for projects that cannot be motivated for in the open to use nefarious means to achieve the directing of the budget one way or the other”. This move was to be implemented by Malusi Gigaba, whom Zuma had appointed to replace Gordhan in March last year.

Gigaba’s appointment prompted the immediate departure of Fuzile. Donaldson and Sachs followed a few months later.

The not-so-new broom

Gigaba arrived at Treasury with sweeping changes. He removed Human, who was acting chief procurement officer and replaced him with Willie Mathebula. He also replaced Jayce Nair in the critical position of accountant-general with Zanele Mxunyelwa. The changes elicited a public outcry. In fairness to Gigaba, there was nothing amiss with the changes, until Mathebula proposed to dismantle the office of the chief procurement officer’s governance, monitoring and compliance division, a critical unit which monitors all government departments and entities’ compliance with tender regulations and policies.

In the past three years alone, the unit has stopped irregular and illegal tenders to the tune of more than R200 billion.

At the time, City Press had reported that Mathebula had argued that the unit was a “dictator and not an enabler.” He also argued that the unit didn’t consult with other government units.

At the time, City Press had also reported that Gigaba, who had been touted as the man to complete Treasury’s capture, had established a parallel administration, making critical decisions without the knowledge of director-general Dondo Mogajane.

At the time, Gigaba’s spokesperson, Mayihlome Tshwete denied all the allegations.

Last year alone the governance, monitoring and compliance unit had stopped the R70-billion Mvimvubu and Moloto rail corridor developments, which the departments of water and sanitation wanted to award to Chinese companies without procurement processes.

These officials are not infallible. Some of them probably have skeletons in their closets. They are not even better than numerous other bureaucrats who averted state capture in their own departments and in their own special ways. However, they should be acknowledged for the role they played in preventing South Africa from rolling over the cliff.

Sipho Masondo
City Press
p:+27 11 713 9001  e:

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