Ferial Haffajee: 'You will get a Gupta minister who will arrive with advisors'

Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)
Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

Lungisa Fuzile, the Standard Bank SA CEO, was previously the director-general of the Treasury. In that role, he was the good civil servant, the kind of official envisaged in the National Development Plan as a super-bureaucrat who would deliver to South Africa its elusive capable state.

On Wednesday, he showed why he is an emblem of the ideal civil servant when he gave evidence at the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. He came across as detail-oriented, a stickler for laws and process, with a killer sense of humour.

At several points in his testimony, he had Zondo, commissioners and the rest of those in attendance laughing as his cool demeanour and a dry sense of humour leavened eyebrow-raising testimony of the attempted takeover of the Treasury.

He started, for example, by reeling off his qualifications (he has many degrees and several other diplomas) and then added that he is also a farmer in training.

Fuzile’s evidence focused on the four days in December 2015 when former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene was axed and replaced by Des van Rooyen who is now known as the "Weekend Special" minister because he was in office for a weekend.

On the evening of December 9th, Nene texted Fuzile and told him: "The axe has fallen."

Later, the ANC head of economic transformation Enoch Godongwana called him and said: "You are now going to get a Gupta minister who will arrive with advisors." He told Fuzile they were likely to be of Indian descent and that they would control the new minister. 

Fuzile continued: "I asked him to elaborate what he meant. He said I should watch it; my new Minister is likely to come with advisors he does not know. They would be 'given' to him by the Guptas I was perplexed, to say the least."

'Nene paused and spoke to us'

By the next morning, Fuzile got into his office at the Treasury early. "I recall walking into Mr Nene’s office and finding him packing his books and other belongings. One or other two colleagues were coming in and out of the office. I remember vividly that at one point, Mr Nene paused and spoke to those of us who were there. He said that we should continue to do our work and that the country needed a strong Treasury."

From then on, Fuzile did his work and revealed himself as a true public servant in the face of an assault on the Treasury by the forces of state capture in the Gupta patronage network. Even though Van Rooyen was in and out in the wink of an eye, his brief was clear.

For one, he came in with an advisor. "On my arrival at the venue, the first person I found standing at the door was a person who introduced himself as Mohamed Bobat. He introduced himself as the 'advisor to the Mr Van Rooyen'."

Fuzile was surprised – and in his surprise, the fact that he was a stickler for laws is clear. "As the DG of the Treasury, I had not signed any papers appointing him to the position he claimed to hold," said the former DG, in his written testimony.

He also objected to Van Rooyen’s efforts to bring in Malcolm Mabaso as another advisor, when Van Rooyen told the DG he would not need a salary, as he also worked at the Mineral Resources department as an advisor to Mosebenzi Zwane.

Bobat, Mabaso and a third advisor, Ian Whitley, we now know, were deployed straight from the Gupta network as Van Rooyen's advisors, with the aim of outsourcing Treasury functions to financial advisory firms linked to the Gupta family.

Fuzile revealed in his testimony that the new minister did not even know his advisors properly, as they only exchanged numbers at the Treasury; Van Rooyen also confused the titles and names of his new officials, indicating that he did not choose them. 

"I was shocked that a person designated to become a Minister about 15-17 hours earlier, in the evening, already had 'an advisor'. In the years I have worked in government (about two decades) I had never seen such a speed in appointing an advisor…Mr Bobat did not care about protocol or civilities at all," said Fuzile.

When Van Rooyen made his first public statement as Finance Minister, Fuzile recounts that he felt "disturbed" as the newly minted Minister didn’t speak about fiscal policy, nuclear procurement or the challenges of education funding, all burning issues of the time.

As a highly qualified technocrat, he quickly realised that Van Rooyen did not have an understanding of his portfolio.

Fuzile said that in his first public remarks, Van Rooyen spoke about "demystifying or opening the Treasury and taking or opening it to the people, including in rural areas" instead of trying to calm the public and the financial markets.

Although Van Rooyen was only in office for an effective two days, the markets tanked so badly that Pravin Gordhan was returned to the National Treasury as Finance Minister by the Monday following Van Rooyen’s appointment.

Fuzile is part of a generation of Treasury officials who joined government early in the democratic era, and who are all highly qualified activist-technocrats. In this week’s testimony by Gordhan and Fuzile, it is now clear that because of this, the Treasury put up a wall of resistance against state capture by sticking to the law – as Fuzile did when he was presented with a weekend special minister.

Gordhan's testimony this week revealed how they stopped a budget-busting nuclear deal in its tracks, and also stopped the profligacy of the era of President Jacob Zuma.

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