It was one little lie: How the Guptas got Nene for good in the end
His split-second response to a surprise question led to his downfall
What caused the unravelling of Nhlanhla Nene?
Hitherto he was presumed to be like Caesar’s wife – beyond reproach and one of the last people to come to mind when considering government high-fliers in the line of fire at the state capture inquiry.
Despite holding one of the most high-profile positions in government, Nene was a cautious, somewhat innocuous, figure who hardly featured in the media, let alone associated with grand corruption.
He did, however, have one of the most reported and costly dismissals in SA history. His sudden and unjust firing by former president Jacob Zuma in December 2015 cost the country billions and cast him as one of the biggest victims of the state capture network.
By removing him, Zuma and the Guptas had their grip on the ultimate prize: the national Treasury.
But pressure from powerful quarters forced Zuma to reappoint Pravin Gordhan as the sentinel over the Treasury, causing a setback for the Gupta network. While the Treasury was temporarily protected, it was too late for Nene.
He retreated to his farm in rural KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Four months later, he was faced with a request that would contribute to his undoing in October 2018.
Nene was approached by eNCA for an interview about his dismissal and future plans. He has always been wary of the media, and it is almost impossible to find a news article or interview where he talked about himself.
He resolved to play it safe, not divulging details of the dramatic events that led to his axing, even though it was well known that his opposition to the nuclear deal made his position as finance minister in Zuma’s cabinet untenable.
Nene did not anticipate that one of the questions would be about his interactions with the Gupta family, and he had to come up with a split-second response.
At the time, in April 2016, Nene believed his career in government was over, and there was no suggestion of a change in the ANC or the country’s leadership (the interview was almost two years before the ANC’s Nasrec conference).
The Gupta contagion was gaining ground then. The Hawks were in pursuit of Gordhan, nobody took any action as a result of Mcebisi Jonas’s revelation that the Guptas tried to promote and bribe him, and the shadow state was consolidating its grip on the South African Revenue Services (SARS) and state-owned companies such as Eskom.
The interview was 12 days after the Constitutional Court found Zuma had breached the Constitution by failing to comply with the public protector’s report on Nkandla. Zuma apologised for the “frustration and confusion” caused, and got away with it.
Nene was holed up in the KwaZulu-Natal heartland, where political hits are commonplace. He panicked and lied that he had not met the Guptas formally.
Since then, there were ample opportunities to correct the lie, or at least confide to those in his circle.
What would have been the effect of doing so?
The two most prominent advocates of the crusade against state capture were Nene’s friends and former colleagues in the finance ministry, Gordhan and Jonas.
Did Nene just forget to mention it or did he deliberately conceal from them that he visited the Guptas at least seven times?
Had Nene told Gordhan and Jonas, it would have broken the trust circle. They would probably have reacted the same way many South Africans did after Nene’s admission to the Zondo commission last week, feeling stunned and betrayed.
In response to questions from the Sunday Times, Nene said he had not thought to inform President Cyril Ramaphosa of his meetings with the Guptas when he reappointed him finance minister in February.
“The question never arose, and I am not aware that presidents ask people they are about to appoint to reveal who they have met as part of the appointment process.
“Though at the time I did not think that the meetings I had with the Guptas were relevant for the purpose of my appointment, looking back I should have informed the president then, or subsequently,” said Nene.
It was the details of the discussions that would have mattered to Ramaphosa. He still does not know what happened during those tea dates between the perpetrators of mass looting of the state and the man to whom he had entrusted the national Treasury.
Could Nene really have been the exception to the Guptas’ pattern of seeking to buy and control everyone they met?
The big question now is whether Nene’s decision to testify at the state capture inquiry made him a political target that led to his dirty laundry being aired?
Or was it a matter of time before the Guptas engineered his downfall through a calculated release of information?
The Guptas are waging a strategic fight-back campaign by trying to discredit their detractors and bolstering their allies, including Zuma and suspended SARS commissioner Tom Moyane.
Through their lawyers and surrogates, there is a steady drip of information to certain people in the media and the EFF. This is to manipulate the national discourse and particularly to counter the evidence at the Zondo commission.
Nene’s big problem is that though he might not have carried out any of the Guptas’ instructions, he unknowingly surrendered his life to them during their dalliance years ago.
They own him and all his skeletons.
Nene would have destroyed the Guptas’ power over him had he come clean earlier. His admission to the Zondo commission appeared coerced because of the campaign to discredit him.
There is the lesson for all other potential witnesses worrying about when their liaisons with the Guptas and other scandals will be exposed.
Their only option is to terminate the Guptas’ hold over them through full disclosure. Otherwise, they must prepare to walk the plank behind Nene.
Our battered nation, even those who were compromised, needs to rally together to take our power back.