Nene at Zondo commission: Questions about the Guptas, answers about the nuclear deal

Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene. (Bloomberg)
Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene. (Bloomberg)

Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene will on Wednesday admit to meeting members of the infamous Gupta family on up to six occasions while he was minister and deputy minister of finance between 2009 and 2015 – and he will argue it is all about situation and circumstance. 

Business Day on Tuesday reported that the meetings were connected to the Public Investment Corporation's investment (PIC) of some R1.3bn into Iqbal Survé's Sekunjalo Investments to facilitate the purchase of the Independent Group. The Guptas wanted in on the deal, in the hope of extending their media empire, but the PIC didn't want the shareholding to change – it must be a PIC-Survé deal, not a PIC-Survé-Gupta deal, was the apparent argument. Peter Bruce gave the same context in his column on BusinessLive on Monday.

In the overheated environment we find ourselves in, one where outrage and vitriol trump nuance and context, Nene is going to have some difficulty explaining the meetings with state capture's first family. Julius Malema has made no secret of his disdain for Nene, and told News24 on Tuesday that the finance minister must come clean and tell the truth, otherwise the EFF won't hesitate to lay charges of perjury against him.

The majority of Nene's meetings with the Guptas took place while he was deputy minister of finance and chairperson of the PIC, and allegedly happened at the family's Saxonwold compound, at the Sahara head office in Midrand and at government-sponsored social events. Nene will apparently say that he did nothing to assist the Guptas and that their failed attempts to get in on the PIC-Sekunjalo deal is evidence of that. 

Why didn't Nene tell?

During that period – 2009 to 2014, and also in 2015, before Nene was fired – Zuma was still considered the post-Mbeki unifier and the ANC brooked no criticism of the party's leader. In 2012 he won the ANC's leadership contest by a landslide (with Cyril Ramaphosa making a return to politics as Zuma's deputy) and the party retained its majority support in the general election of 2014. The Guptas first hit the country's radar screens with the aborted Imperial Crown Trading-Kumba Iron Ore fiasco in 2010, and then incrementally entered the country's collective consciousness through The New Age and a series of sweet government sponsorship deals, before the brazen Waterkloof air force base landing debacle in 2013. That was the same year in which Survé bought Independent.

Nene is going to have to explain what the nature of the meetings with the Guptas were, and what exactly was discussed. According to Business Day's report, he didn't report the meetings to anyone and officials at National Treasury were surprised when they only recently learned of the liaisons. This is something that will grate, because when Mcebisi Jonas was seemingly propositioned by the Guptas in October 2015 he immediately told his superior, Nene, about the encounter. They even discussed the matter on the balcony of Jonas' office at Treasury’s pile on Church Square, afraid of listening devices in the building. Why didn't Nene tell Jonas that he was also groomed by the Guptas? And it seems that he also never told his director general, Lungisa Fuzile, what was happening. Sure, he couldn't go to Zuma, because Zuma was probably the fixer who initiated contact between his benefactors and his finance minister.

But he could surely have shared it with Pravin Gordhan, who was finance minister between 2009 and 2014 and moved to cooperative governance and traditional affairs in 2014. And when he was fired, it must have warranted a mention to some in his inner circle, like Fuzile.

'Your last minister (Gordhan) defied me in many ways'

The record, however, does show that in December 2015 Nene and his team of senior officials had to mount a fierce resistance to escalating attempts by Zuma to force the nuclear deal.

On Monday, December 7, 2015, Nene, along with his senior staff, briefed the president on a budget presentation that was to be made to Cabinet on Wednesday, December 9.

On Tuesday, December 8, Nene attended a meeting of the nuclear subcommittee, chaired by Zuma, at the presidential guesthouse. Nene and his team were bombarded with arguments about why the country needed nuclear, and he eventually agreed to a statement that said government would be "investigating" the need for nuclear. 

But Nene and his team were clear: nuclear is not only unnecessary, it was unaffordable. Fuzile later said he left the meeting with the clear impression that political considerations weighed much heavier than fiscal ones. And when they left, Zuma told one Treasury official: "Your last minister (Gordhan) defied me in many ways."

Two days later, on December 9, 2015, Nene was fired. And Treasury's walls were breached.

Nene will have to explain the Gupta meetings, but the answers about Zuma and the nuclear deal will be the most important.

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

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