Then president Jacob Zuma did not react to Fikile Mbalula’s allegation that the Guptas knew about his appointment as sports minister before he did at a 2011 national executive committee (NEC) meeting, the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture heard on Thursday.
During his testimony on Thursday, former finance minister Trevor Manuel told the commission, chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, that Mbalula’s “emotional outburst” about his encounter with the Guptas drew no response from Zuma — despite the implication that the then president had consulted with members of the Saxonwold family about a ministerial appointment.
Manuel’s evidence dealt with a 2011 NEC meeting, attended by Zuma, during which Mbalula made a tearful confession about his interaction with Atul Gupta, who allegedly knew he would be sports minister before he did. Mbalula was appointed sports minister in October 2010.
Mbalula has not denied the allegation, but has said that it was actually Gupta patriarch, Ajay, who prematurely congratulated him on his appointment.
“My recollection of that NEC was that there was an intense discussion about the influence of the Guptas,” Manuel recounted.
It was during this discussion that Mbalula allegedly said “he was called to Saxonwold”. “And there he was told that he was going to be appointed as minister of sports and recreation,” Manuel told the commission.
Manuel said that it was clear it was “an exceedingly difficult, emotional issue for Mr Mbalula” because in retrospect there had been a violation of the prerogative of the president.
Mbalula’s confession was the first confirmation that the Guptas may have had a hand in the appointment of ministers, Manuel said — explaining that there had already been rumours within the NEC that certain individuals had been invited to the Gupta family’s Saxonwold compound prior to their appointments.
When asked by evidence leader Leah Gcabashe SC why Mbalula only made his confession a year after his appointment as sports minister, Manuel said: “I don’t want to subject this commission to my conjecture.”
Manuel told the commission that he has “not the slightest doubt” that Mbalula’s confession was evidence of Zuma’s abdication of his powers to the Guptas.
“The ministers who were allocated to particular portfolios … I think that they acted frequently to advance certain positions … I have no doubt that if there were reluctant ministers they would be removed and replaced with people who were more pliable,” Manuel said of the alleged influence of the Gupta family over Zuma’s Cabinet appointments.
Ajay Gupta applied to cross-examine Manuel last month but was denied this right based on his unwillingness to appear before the commission in person.
Manuel shrugged off the possibility that he had misidentified Atul as the Gupta brother who congratulated Mbalula on his appointment, saying he would find it difficult to distinguish between the brothers because he has never met them.