Nhlanhla Nene is not the only liar in Cabinet

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President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: AFP)
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: AFP)

In a cruel twist of fate, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene – the original victim of Jacob Zuma's attempts at state capture – is likely to become the first victim of the Zondo commission.

Zuma must be cracking up as he watches the Nene fiasco from his state-sponsored bunker at Nkandla, chewing on Maharani Hotel mints after his latest visit to the prestigious Durban establishment.

I have been cautioned in the past not to give Zuma too much credit for his strategic brilliance, but if he and his dubious associates engineered Nene's downfall shortly after the minister spilled the beans on Zuma's insatiable lust for nuclear, I must hand it to the former president.

This is the stuff Netflix thrillers are made of.

Obviously, the EFF played its part in unmasking the "real Nene", but the party may yet find that it was a useful idiot for a bigger fightback by the real state capturers.  

Whether it was Zuma or an apocalyptic alignment of natural forces against him, Nene can be forgiven for feeling a little hard done by. A few days after telling the country that he was fired by Zuma for blocking the nuclear deal with Russia – that would have plunged our children and their children into Venezuela-like misery – the national debate centres on whether Nene had Rooibos or Earl Grey during his six meetings with the Guptas.

If there was ever a case of poetic injustice, this is it.

Nene is the one person that should have come through the Zondo commission smelling of roses. After all, it was he who stood between National Treasury and full-scale plunder by Zuma and the Guptas.

When Nene stood firm on the nuclear deal, Zuma fired him and replaced him with the mayor of a failed municipality.

History will reflect Nene's role in saving our country from sure bankruptcy. But it will also show that he stupidly lied to South Africans about meeting the Guptas, even if nothing came of those meetings.

Only Nene knows why he didn't disclose these meetings earlier and it is a blunder he will carry on his conscience for the rest of his life.

If his son financially benefitted from the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) while he chaired its board, Nene will have more to explain. Although Nene Jr will not be the first or the last offspring of an ANC politician to benefit from state money, Nene should have known better.

The minister of finance, like Caesar's wife, must be above suspicion.

The Nene predicament has handed President Cyril Ramaphosa his toughest challenge since assuming office in February. Some, like News24 analyst Ralph Mathekga, argues that Nene's continued presence in Ramaphosa's cabinet will undermine the president's anti-corruption and anti-state capture drive.

I agree with this sentiment, although Nene could make a strong case that nothing has been proven or alleged that he was corrupt or captured the state for the Guptas. My concern is less with the meetings than with the lie.

Lying suggests Nene wanted to hide something about these meetings, whether it is true or not. And the minister of finance cannot be a liar.

This is Ramaphosa's predicament: if he allows Nene to resign because of a lie, what does he do with Malusi Gigaba, Nomvula Mokonyane, Bathabile Dlamini and Siyabonga Cwele, to name but a few ministers whose skeletons vary from smallanyana to Nkandla big?

How can Ramaphosa let Nene go but keep Thulas Nxesi, who shamelessly defended Zuma's Nkandla expenditure as public works minister, in his cabinet? And what about Gwede Mantashe, who flip-flopped more than what is healthy when he was secretary-general of the ANC?

Lying has never disqualified an ANC politician from holding office and if Ramaphosa is looking for someone to make an example of, I suggest he starts with the person whose actions nearly brought the entire social grants system to a collapse.

Until every current and former member of the executive who interacted with the Guptas comes clean about what exactly they did – flights on private jets, trips to Dubai and policy changes included – it may be wiser to hold off passing judgement on Nene's lapse before all the rot has been laid bare.

- Basson is editor-in-chief of News24. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanBasson

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