Nhlanhla Nene, the Guptas and the PIC: Should he resign?

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

President Cyril Ramaphosa has a difficult decision to make: should he ask for the resignation of his finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene?

Nene has admitted to meeting the Guptas at their home on at least six occasions between 2009 and 2014, when he was both deputy minister and minister of finance. He owned up to ten contact meetings with the Guptas, including visits to the head office of Sahara Computers in Midrand and at government events.

In addition there seems to be evidence that his son, Siyabonga, could have benefitted financially from a business deal financed by the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) in 2014, when he was at the end of his term as deputy minister and chairperson of the PIC board. Although Nene Jr was not included in the deal financed by the PIC, his partner received a hefty finder's fees and a generous exit package from the deal.

In his evidence before the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture Nene denied both that he assisted the Guptas or that he is aware of any impropriety in regard to the PIC transaction. And on Friday he apologised for not coming clean earlier about the Guptas, begging for forgiveness, and added that he will cooperate with any investigation into his son's dealings with the PIC.

It could not have come at a worse time for Ramaphosa, who is attempting to coax the economy out of its slump, reset the state and manage a fractious ANC, while simultaneously trying to put daylight between him and the corruption of the previous government.

But it's difficult to do all of that when one of your most senior and important ministers comes out admitting that he lied about the nature of his relationship with the country's most reviled family. And to add insult to injury, his son's PIC involvement has opened him up to attacks from the EFF, questioning his integrity and demanding his resignation. The DA has also asked the public protector to investigate.

Ramaphosa will have to decide how egregious the Nene transgression was and whether it warrants a dismissal. Nene told eNCA in 2016 that he never had any "engagements" with the Guptas and that he only "bumped" into them at official functions. Did he tell Ramaphosa the same? Because four meetings at Saxonwold while deputy minister and two after he became a minister certainly are fully-fledged engagements, and, given what we know about how the Guptas operate, the discussions were bound to revolve around what they want and need.

There are still too many unanswered questions about these meetings: how long did they last? What exactly was discussed? What demands were made? How were they responded to?

When the Guptas allegedly approached Nene's deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, in October 2015, he immediately shared details of the event with both Nene and Pravin Gordhan. In fact, Jonas and Nene spoke about the issue on the balcony of Jonas' office on Church Square for fear of being secretly recorded. Surely that was a moment where Nene could have shared his own experience with Jonas?

Surely, given the prevailing political climate and the series of revelations surrounding the Guptas, Nene could have confided in a colleague like Gordhan? Some at Treasury expressed their surprise when Nene revealed his links with the Guptas. It seems he never told them, either.

The argument is being made that in his first term, between 2009 and 2014, it was difficult to rebuff the president when he introduced the Guptas to all and sundry. At the time the Guptas weren't considered as toxic and reputational risk was still believed to be within bounds. "What must you do if the president wants you to meet someone?" is the refrain.

But surely that changed after 2013, when the family abused their connection to the president to land at Waterkloof Air Force Base and after the details about Imperial Crown Trading came to light?

Nene met them twice at their Saxonwold home in 2014 after he became minister to discuss the deal between the PIC and Iqbal Survé. "There was no harm in honouring their invitation," he told the capture commission on Wednesday. Even allowing for the role of the finance minister to engage with major stakeholders in the economy as well as to keep relationships with high net-worth individuals on track, these meetings seem highly irregular. And we need to know exactly what was discussed.

There certainly is a sense of unease about the Gupta-PIC revelations in high party and government circles. Nene is not believed to be corrupt and his role in blocking the Russian nuclear deal is spoken of in glowing terms. There is agreement that Nene showed poor judgement but uncertainty about whether he should resign, with the added complication that the medium term budget policy statement is set to be delivered on October 24. Treasury can hardly afford more instability and another new minister.

Whatever Ramaphosa decides, he will have to do so publicly. If Nene stays, he needs the president's support. If he goes, Ramaphosa will have to explain that, too.

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

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