On December 9 2015, ANC backbencher Des van Rooyen was appointed finance minister. Four days later, after intense pressure, then-president Jacob Zuma rescinded his appointment, shifted him to the co-operative governance and traditional affairs department and appointed Pravin Gordhan to control the nation’s purse strings.
Those few days were the culmination of years of reports about the influence of the Gupta family in running South Africa. To many, Van Rooyen, who had visited the Guptas’ Saxonwold compound seven days in a row before his appointment, represents the epitome of state capture.
Investigators for the Zondo commission of enquiry into state capture have been tasked to discover what exactly Van Rooyen did during his tenure as finance minister. He was at the helm of the treasury for just one day but reports indicate that it took mere hours for Van Rooyen to feed information to the Guptas.
He has repeatedly insisted that he signed “no deals” during his term as finance minister but of particular interest to investigators is to find out how a confidential presentation meant for the Cabinet ended up with Trillian chief executive Eric Wood, and was later passed on to Gupta business associate and lieutenant Salim Essa.
Van Rooyen received the presentation from former director general Lungisa Fuzile, who is one of four current and former treasury officials who have been approached by the commission’s investigators to give statements and consider testifying.
“There will be a round that will be on Des van Rooyen and the commission’s investigators are interviewing four people from treasury but might just want to take two to testify,” a senior government official familiar with treasury matters said. “The officials will testify about that one Friday that Des van Rooyen was in office and the meeting he called and what he wanted from the officials.”
This week, testimony from key witnesses before the commission detailed how unfettered access to key government information, including departmental budgets, sensitive government strategy and procurement spending plans was instrumental to state capture.
Former senior civil servant Themba Maseko and former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor revealed how the Gupta family seemed to have intimate knowledge of government information, including of the government’s advertising budget, and used it to secure business deals with national departments and state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Van Rooyen is a central figure in the allegations of state capture in both his capacity as short-lived finance minister and his longer tenure as co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister.
Van Rooyen, still a staunch Zuma supporter and defender, arrived at the treasury with two advisers, Ian Whitley and Mohamed Bobat, who were allegedly handpicked by the Guptas. At the time Whitley was ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte’s son-in-law.
Bobat was employed by Gupta-linked Trillian at the time of Van Rooyen’s appointment as finance minister. He later played a key role in drafting crucial proposals from Trillian to the department of co-operative governance to help tier-two municipalities to access debt on capital markets to pay for infrastructure projects, as well as the establishment of a national black bank with which the government would conduct all its business.
The Sunday Times previously reported that Bobat was the adviser who shared the confidential document with Wood.
This week, Fuzile would not say what the investigators wanted from him or whether he would testify about Van Rooyen.
Officials expected to testify at the commission have been sworn to secrecy and cannot divulge any information about their testimonies. But a government source said the document Fuzile passed to Van Rooyen was not supposed to be shared even with his own advisers — it was confidential and meant for the Cabinet only. It was about how to turn around South Africa’s economy and was going to be presented at a meeting on December 15 2015.
It detailed economic opportunities in Africa and South Africa, and addressed the effects of rating agencies’ decisions. It also gave a breakdown of government expenditure, matters to do with state-owned companies, corruption and perceptions about it, beneficiation and mining, as well as South Africa’s nine-point plan for an economic turnaround and each department’s contribution to it.
“If this one [Van Rooyen] sent a presentation to Eric Wood, who is connected to the Guptas, how many other presentations and government information, whether from him or any other ministers, did they have access to?” an official said.
“Could it be that one of their modus operandi is to plant advisers and officials, if one of the things they said to [former deputy finance minister] Mcebisi Jonas [was that] they would give him officials.”
Van Rooyen did not respond to calls and text messages asking for comment.
Previous media reports on state capture have detailed the role played by other ministers, including former communications minister Faith Muthambi, who shared a confidential Cabinet memo, and former minerals resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who travelled with the Guptas to Zurich, where the Gupta family and Essa met Glencore, the owner of Optimum Coal, to discuss its sale to the Guptas’ Tegeta Exploration and Resources.
Last week the Mail & Guardian revealed that other treasury officials would appear at the commission to testify about the sustained resistance they encountered at major SOEs when they tried to investigate their alleged capture by the Gupta family and their associates.
The treasury has said it would hand over all reports relating to its investigations when it reviewed contracts worth more than R10-million at Transnet, Eskom, Denel and other SOEs.