ANALYSIS: To the brave few who fought against state capture, thank you
The Zuma era is a story of the betrayal of a nation, but there were exceptional people who battled for integrity
The statements by former national treasury director-general Lungisa Fuzile at the end of his testimony at the Zondo commission last week reflected why that department has been so central to the political story playing out in our country.
The sentiment that informed Fuzile’s remarks was not just that of a senior public servant who was angered by the onslaught against the national treasury – which he said former president Jacob Zuma was central in “orchestrating” – but a citizen who despaired at the slide towards lawlessness.
“It is the lesson for every South African ... that this is a country governed by a constitution and law. Your first point of reference ought to be that if you are coming into the civil service, in fact every sphere of life,” Fuzile said.
His testimony last week focused on the short period Des van Rooyen served as finance minister in December 2015.
Fuzile, as well as current director-general Dondo Mogajane and former head of communications Phumza Macanda, described in their evidence the abnormalities that played out over the two working days Van Rooyen and his Gupta-appointed advisers gained access to the heart of the government system.
All three testified about their anxiety over the damage to the economy resulting from the abrupt firing of Nhlanhla Nene and the appointment of someone who had no concept of his job or responsibility to the nation.
From what they described, Van Rooyen had no sense of self-respect and allowed himself to be humiliated and led around by the nose by Mohamed Bobat, an adviser he did not even know.
The conflict that arose behind closed doors was between officials who wanted to continue doing their jobs within the rules, as well as defend the country from further damage, and people who had come to break the rules to give the Guptas further access to state coffers, irrespective of the consequences.
“It helps to make sure that first time when a person tries to ask you to do something that is illegal, to let them know, and let them know in no uncertain terms, that you are not going to be party to doing a crime,” Fuzile said.
“Once it is illegal or it is not in the national interest then it is off the table and you would not leave it any doubt. So it is important to be law abiding and the issue of playing by the rules is important because at every point, if you look at my interactions with Mr Van Rooyen and Mr Bobat over that short period, I kept making reference to the rules.”
One of the difficulties for the Zondo commission is trying to locate the incidents of state capture in the context of the political situation of the time. With Zuma and the Guptas no longer in control of the country, it is easy to forget how everyone who tried to resist the capture project was maligned.
For many people it was easier to succumb, especially because the ANC had seemingly ceded to the Guptas. There was no counter-force dictating how the state should respond.
Fuzile testified that on the night Nene was fired he received a call from ANC national executive committee member Enoch Godongwana, who told him: “You are going to get a Gupta minister who will arrive with his advisers.” He also told him the advisers would be “given” to Van Rooyen by the Guptas.
When the situation played out exactly as Godongwana had described, it must have troubled Fuzile greatly that the ANC was aware that this was going to happen and could do nothing to stop it.
A lesser man might have gone with the flow.
But Fuzile, his political heads, and the team of people they assembled at the department all developed the same steadfast attitude when it came to policy and the law.
This is what made the national treasury’s top brass an aberration in a captured state.
Nene and Pravin Gordhan, the men who occupied the position of finance minister and were unceremoniously fired, both testified how Zuma tried to strong-arm them to get the treasury’s backing for his mega-projects, including the R1-trillion nuclear deal.
Both refused to deviate from the rules.
Mcebisi Jonas, who served as deputy to both, snubbed the Gupta offer to be their minion, fire the treasury’s senior officials and facilitate access to government deals.
Fuzile stood like a brick wall, unyielding to political pressure from the president and other members of cabinet. Nene testified how the day before he was fired, Fuzile argued resolutely against the nuclear deal at a meeting with Zuma and a team of ministers.
The senior staff of the treasury took their cue from their leaders and maintained the department as a bastion against state capture. It exacerbated the already hostile attitude in government towards the treasury.
As a result, Zuma and those close to him had to find ways around the treasury front line.
Evidence will come before the state capture inquiry about how then minister in the presidency Jeff Radebe led efforts to shift some of the treasury’s core functions to his department – a move that was illegal.
Because of the treasury’s refusal to bow to political demands, Zuma and Radebe decided that the budget processes should be shifted to the presidency. The pretence was improving alignment with the National Development Plan. Although Radebe and his officials interfered with budget allocations, they could not succeed in usurping the function.
When Gordhan refused to intervene when the Gupta bank accounts were closed, Zuma set up an interministerial task team to take on the banks.
The ultimate remedy open to Zuma was removal from cabinet. He wielded the axe, first against Nene, then Gordhan and Jonas last March, to gain control of the treasury.
But this still proved difficult, with the officials holding strong.
“Things are going to get better but the reality is that bad stuff was happening,” Fuzile said in his testimony.
The story of state capture is one of tragedy and betrayal of a nation. But there were exceptional public servants who fought, and continue to fight, for the integrity of the state.
In the current political morass, where leadership is indistinct and tainted, the country is in desperate need of such commitment and patriotism.