JOHANNESBURG - Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene admitted meeting with the controversial Gupta family between 2009 and 2014, but denied working with them or facilitating deals for their benefit when he was chairman of the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) and later deputy finance minister.
He told the inquiry that he mostly met the family at government functions during former president Jacob Zuma's tenure. His first encounter with Ajay Gupta was in 2009 when he was deputy finance minister.
"I met Ajay at a number of occasions at government events. They [Guptas] were at many of government events at that time...the first [meeting] was dinner after the State-of-the-nation address in 2009. I was deputy minister at the time, and was then invited to [Gupta-owned] Sahara Computers...they marketed themselves as good corporate citizens who employed young people. Ajay kept telling me that they do not do business with government," Nene told the commission.
He said the Saxonwold meetings were mostly a ''PR exercise'' and nothing untoward came out of them. He was further invited "for tea" at Saxonwold to discuss the economy.
"They also requested me to contribute to a magazine called The Thinker [brainchild of former minister] by Essop Pahad, I was also briefed on the launch of The New Age [newspaper]... they said media was hostile to government and the ANC and needed an alternative view."
Nene said he got suspicious when the Estina diary project investigation came up, adding that the PR exercise might have been an effort by the Guptas to "conceal something".
"The only time I got suspicious was around 2013 when the Treasury was investigating one of their companies about a diary farm in the Free State. That is when I got suspicious about their saying that they do not do business with the State...that contradicted what they said to me," said Nene.
The minister said the only direct request to him by the Guptas was when he was asked to intervene in a dispute with head of Independent Media Iqbal Survé.
Ajay told him at one of the meetings that they had an agreement with Survé to go into business together, financed by the PIC.
"Ajay told me there was now a court case against him [Survé] as he is refusing to honour his commitment to them, and that his [Survé] explanation was that his agreement with PIC did not accommodate the Guptas," he said.
Nene confirmed that Survé received a substantial loan from the PIC.
"Did Mr Gupta want a part of that funding," asked evidence leader Paul Pretorius.
"Well, they had an agreement that they would be part of that but Mr Survé was reneging on that agreement. So, the [Gupta] inquiry [to me] was because he says he cannot do it anymore because of the PIC agreement, is that correct? I said because it was an agreement with PIC, that would not be a matter concerning PIC and requiring its intervention. My further request to Ajay was that if he has further queries, he must raise them directly with the PIC.''
Nene further testified about the Spiderweb project report, seen as a smear campaign against Treasury officials.
It surfaced in 2015 and claimed that Treasury leaders were handled by ''white monopoly capital''.
According to the report, Nene was handled by Absa head Maria Ramos, referred to in the report as the "Queen of Leaves". Treasury then released a media statement rebuking the allegations
Earlier, inquiry chairman, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, repeated his call to the public to contact the commission if they have information or evidence on state capture.
This came after Pretorius told the commission about a media report this week detailing Nene's interactions with the controversial family. Pretorius said no one has come forward to substantiate the media reports.
Zondo appealed to government leaders, including those in the National Assembly and public servants in general to assist the inquiry.
''I have been making this call...and want to repeat that there must be a number of ministers in the present and previous cabinets who must have some knowledge of things that happened. I am saying, please come out to help the commission...there must be a lot of senior officials in government, in the NA, NCOP, who know things that fall within the terms of reference of this commission.''
''We ask them to come forward. I also just want everyone to know that just because we have been inviting them to come forward, doesn't mean that because they do not come forward, this commission will not get to know what they know. Commission will investigate, and there will be appreciate the importance of this work for the country.''
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African News Agency (ANA)