ANALYSIS: Only truth will set finance ministry free from its Gupta curse
For the sake of SA, it's time for our parade of finance ministers to man up and dish the state capture dirt
There seems to be a curse on SA’s finance ministers.
After Trevor Manuel’s 13-year stint, his successors were plagued by controversy and have been playing musical chairs in the post – one serving for just four days.
On Saturday night, Malusi Gigaba, who served as finance minister for a year before being sent back to the home affairs portfolio, decided to answer questions on Twitter about “the narrative that I was ever/am captured by the Guptas”. He also tweeted cryptically: “One day the story of how I came to be appointed finance minister will be told in full.”
What Gigaba was raising in his late-night search for redemption is directly related to what the Zondo commission is investigating. His appointment as minister occurred as the state capture project reached its zenith with the firing of Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas from the finance ministry.
Gigaba ought to tell this story – his version of it – at the inquiry rather than rolling the dice on social media, choosing to selectively respond to allegations that he was the Guptas’ hatchet man.
There are many questions for which Gigaba must provide detailed answers. These include what was behind the closure of South African Airways’ Mumbai route, how he came to appoint Gupta lieutenants in key positions in state-owned companies such as Transnet and Eskom, the Gupta citizenship issue and why he lied under oath in the Fireblade Aviation case.
It is now obvious he fell out with former president Jacob Zuma during his tenure as finance minister. Gigaba must tell the country what Zuma wanted him to do at the Treasury and why he did not do it.
His successor, Nhlanhla Nene, is appearing at the commission to explain the circumstances around his firing in December 2015 and how conflict over the nuclear deal hyped the hostility against the national Treasury.
It has now emerged that Nene held a number of meetings with the Guptas when he was deputy finance minister and later while he was minister.
The meetings were over the Guptas’ demands that he strong-arm the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), which he chaired, to allow them to get a stake in the purchase of the Independent News and Media group. The Guptas were shafted after an initial agreement with Iqbal Surve that they partner his company, Sekunjalo Investment Holdings, in the buyout of Independent Media.
The Guptas did not get what they wanted, but Nene still has questions to answer.
Why did he not disclose his meetings with the Guptas until a campaign to discredit him is forcing him to own up? The opportune moment to do so was after he was fired by Zuma under the pretext that he was to be nominated for a position at the Brics bank.
If not then, the time to speak up was certainly after Jonas, his former deputy, told the country in March 2016 how the Guptas offered him Nene’s job and a R600m bribe.
Another opportunity to come clean was when he was sent a letter by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in May asking about his relationship with the Guptas and whether he negotiated business deals for them. Nene has an obligation as a member of the executive to respond to questions from MPs, so it is baffling that he failed to respond.
Nene will now have to tell the state capture inquiry whether the Guptas had any role in his appointment as minister in 2014, as it was just before this that he held several meetings with them.
This will not be easy, especially as Nene is a guarded character who has been reluctant to discuss his dismissal.
But Nene’s testimony has a bearing on his credibility of the finance ministry. He must be completely forthright if he wants the country to trust him. The EFF has already called on him to step down, and he now has a dark cloud over his head.
After so much damage to state institutions, the nation needs to know whether the national Treasury is in safe hands.
The Treasury is the heart of government. Zuma tried to force the department to facilitate his pet projects and the Guptas desired it as their big prize.
There is a history to this.
Pravin Gordhan’s first term as finance minister from 2009 to 2014 was the genesis of the tensions between Zuma and the national Treasury.
Zuma wanted more liberal spending and bending of the rules, such as granting PetroSA a guarantee for a loan to buy a major stake in Engen without due diligence being conducted.
Gordhan was a stickler for process and was determined to curb wanton spending in government. He refused to play fast and loose with state funds.
Every finance minister has had to carry the cross of having to balance political pressure with budgetary realities. Even Gigaba’s swashbuckling undertakings to use the Treasury to enable “radical economic transformation” were shortlived when he became apprised of the strict rules governing the budgetary process and the dire economic situation.
The state capture inquiry is not the ideal place for the travails of the finance ministers to be ventilated. But it is the only available platform where truths can be told and the credibility of the Treasury affirmed.
The jinx on the finance ministry must be broken.