Johannesburg - Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene on Wednesday had his hands full in distancing himself from the controversial Gupta family, despite admitting meeting them four times in one year and having tea at the family’s Saxonwold compound.
Nene told the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo in Parktown, Johannesburg, that he met the Guptas on a few occasions at government functions, including the post-State of the Nation Address dinner in 2009.
He said Ajay Gupta invited him to their company Sahara Computers’ head office in Midrand, Johannesburg, where he was told the family were good corporate citizens.
“Ajay said he was an economist and invited me for tea to discuss the economy,” Nene testified.
He said he visited their Saxonwold compound four times but never approved funding for any Gupta-owned or related company when he was deputy finance minister and chairperson of the Public Investment Corporation (PIC).
Nene also denied fresh allegations that the PIC funded his son’s business to promote his oil company when he was its chairperson.
Nene said he had no idea where the accusations were coming from but found their timing “strange and interesting” as they surfaced days before he was due to testify before Zondo’s commission.
He said the nuclear build programme has always been contentious and costs associated with it astronomical.
Former president Jacob Zuma even decided to change the national nuclear energy executive co-ordinating committee whose chairperson was his former deputy Kgalema Motlanthe and replacing it with Cabinet energy security sub-committee, which he personally chaired.
According to Nene, he refused to sign a letter and its reworked second version prepared by then energy minister Tina Joemat-Petterson in Russia in July 2015 because no fiscal and financial feasibility study had been conducted on the nuclear deal.
He said Zuma was furious and criticised him for not doing his job as he was due to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin at the BRICS summit.
In subsequent meetings on the nuclear deal, Nene said, he stopped making inputs because there was evidence Zuma’s administration would not listen to reason and he had done everything humanly possible to raise his concerns about the nuclear deal.
“I had expended all my fighting power,” he testified.
Nene also said that when he rejected the nuclear deal, the then state security minister David Mahlobo and his then international relations and co-operation counterpart Maite Nkoana-Mashabane became hostile towards him.
He said he felt he was being accused of insubordination not just by Zuma but by his colleagues in cabinet.
“I stood my ground because I know I was not going to append my signature,” said Nene. Nene, who was fired by Zuma as finance minister in December 2015, told the commission that when Zuma offered the position of head of the BRICS Bank’s African Regional Centre he (Zuma) knew it was a “fabrication”.
According to Nene, Zuma fired him and offered to deploy him to the BRICS Bank knowing that he had no power to make such an appointment.
“The only thing the leadership could have done is to encourage one to apply,” Nene said.
At the three-minute meeting in which Zuma informed Nene that he had been fired, the finance minister told Zondo, the former head of state informed him that he had consulted the ANC top six officials.
At the time, the governing party’s top six included then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, secretary-general at the time Gwede Mantashe, deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, national chairperson Baleka Mbete and treasurer-general Dr Zweli Mkhize.
He said he was axed due to his refusal to toe the line in relation to certain projects that would have benefited the Guptas and their associates, such as the nuclear deal and lucrative deals involving SAA.
Zondo asked Nene whether the ANC top six kept minutes of its meetings. Nene said he did not know.
Head of the ANC presidency Zizi Kodwa said the party was willing to hand over minutes of party meetings if requested by Zondo.
Kodwa backed Zondo’s call for former and current cabinet ministers and senior government officials to approach the commission and provide evidence of state capture.
“We are pleased that a sitting minister testified today,” he said. The commission is expected to resume next Wednesday when it is scheduled to hear evidence of recalled witnesses who will conclude their testimony.
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, who was finance minister between 2009 and 2014 and from December 2015 until March last year, will give evidence next Friday.