Nene lied, but he's honourable and should keep his job
If he ends up in the political wilderness it will hardly encourage other people to come clean over state capture
At the time of writing, Nhlanhla Nene is still finance minister. I hope he will still be by the time you read this. Let me explain why.
Nene is a loyal ANC cadre who wants to do his job properly. But that implied a tortuous dissonance. What happens when those two ambitions could not be reconciled: when doing President Jacob Zuma’s will was fundamentally at odds with doing one’s job?
In the case of Nene, we know the answer. When he was presented with a hastily drawn-up contract to tie the state to as much as a trillion rand of debt for the nuclear deal in 2015, he chose to do his job properly. He refused to sign. Of course, there are other cabinet members who went the other way in managing their own dissonant obligations. Nene was summarily dismissed for his decision, sparking an onslaught on the national Treasury that was ongoing when Zuma fell. The price for doing one’s job was high.
Psychologists call it hindsight bias: the phenomenon of believing now that we were able to predict past events before they had occurred. While there were many who warned the country in 2009 about the deeply compromised Zuma becoming president, given his proven links to the Shaik family and questionable financial arrangements, there were numerous others who buried their doubts and tried to see the best in him.
We forget that many inside the ANC and outside, including journalists, now-opposition politicians and union leaders, were once praise singers for Zuma. When he pushed forward the Guptas as champions of black empowerment and economic development, they took it at face value. When ministers and civil servants were told to go and talk to the Guptas, they did. Msholozi believes in them, and he’s asked me to talk to them. Why shouldn’t I?
Nene is an honourable man, but in his efforts to be loyal to the leadership he met with the Guptas. In retrospect it is easy to judge him for that. It is clear now that there could be no innocent meeting with them, that they always had an agenda and purpose that was at odds with the interests of the country. By all accounts he did not agree to do anything for them, merely to satisfy his political leader’s requests to hear them out.
Thanks to the testimony of Mcebisi Jonas and Themba Maseko, we’ve heard about the Guptas at their extorting, threatening, malignant best, but the majority of their encounters with people were relatively benign. Indeed, I had several phone calls with Atul Gupta as a journalist several years ago, in which his tactic was obsequious flattery rather than bully-boy threats. I can see how Nene, instructed by Zuma, could have had several meetings with the Guptas involving relatively benign discussions.
But he did lie about them. Not when he was under oath, as he was last week, but when journalists asked him if he had met with them. The video clip of his denials in 2015 on eNCA after his dismissal, is damning. That was a serious mistake. And it appears he lied not only to journalists, but also to some of his closest political allies who were also in the dark until last week.
Nene must have felt mortified about betraying them and the public at large. I am sure that he had every intention of resigning. Indeed, his public apology released on Friday reads like a resignation letter. But he did not go that far, convinced by some of those same allies (perhaps including the president) that doing so would be a blow in the delicate process of solidifying the fight against corruption, of undoing state capture. His apology might nevertheless be a tactical mistake, a sign of weakness and naiveté at a time when there are many knives out to get him.
Nene’s predicament was occasioned by the Zondo Commission, at which he had to come clean. I hope that there are many others who, like him, made mistakes, but are still willing to come forward and speak to the commission. If the repercussions for Nene are once again to find himself in the political wilderness it will be a powerful disincentive –for others who also felt torn between their loyalty to Zuma and doing the right thing; who also made errors of judgment in trying to manage that conflict.
The irony, of course, is that while Nene was torn but ultimately saved the country from financial ruin, among his cabinet colleagues are many who managed the dissonance in a very different way. Men and women who put their loyalty to Zuma first and gave barely a second thought to doing what’s right. While Nene is roasted for six meetings with the Guptas, in the cabinet are several who thought nothing of attending that notorious Gupta Sun City wedding, or countless other social occasions. We should not forget that Nene’s predecessor, Malusi Gigaba, was at many Gupta events. He arrived at the national Treasury as finance minister last year with two known Gupta advisers in tow. How did Gigaba manage the conflict of loyalty and integrity? That answer is clear.
Should Nene resign it would be bad for the Zondo Commission, which should be a space for people to come clean without fear of damaging political consequences. It would be bad for the delicate process of re-establishing good governance against a host of bad actors. It would feed the EFF’s anti-Nene campaign, the motives for which I suspect have more to do with their links to tobacco tax dodgers and fraud at VBS Mutual Bank.
And it would be disloyal to a man who has been through hell for standing against the most egregious attempted heists of the Gupta and Zuma kleptocracy.
But he did lie. For that he has apologised.