Gupta-linked Bobat was hired on merit, Van Rooyen tells Zondo commission

Gupta-linked businessperson Mohamed Bobat’s appointment as a special adviser at national treasury was “purely on merit”, former minister Des van Rooyen told the Zondo commission of inquiry on Tuesday.

But during his appearance before the commission, at which he has been accused of working with the controversial Gupta family to infiltrate the upper echelons of the national treasury, Van Rooyen also conceded that he had not seen Bobat’s CV before offering him the position.

On December 9 2015, Van Rooyen — often characterised as an “ANC backbencher” — was appointed finance minister in a cabinet reshuffle that saw Nhlanhla Nene removed from the position. Four days later, after intense pressure, then president Jacob Zuma rescinded his appointment, shifted him to the co-operative governance and traditional affairs department and appointed Pravin Gordhan in his stead.

According to reports and allegations at the Zondo commission, chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, Van Rooyen fed privileged treasury information to Gupta associates through his advisers. 

At the time of Van Rooyen’s appointment as finance minister, Bobat was employed by Trillian. The Sunday Times previously reported that during Van Rooyen’s four-day stint at treasury, Bobat shared the confidential document with Trillian chief executive Eric Wood. On Tuesday, Van Rooyen denied that the document was classified.

In response to a question by evidence leader Garth Hulley SC about Bobat’s qualifications, Van Rooyen said: “I’ve never seen his CV, but I know his profile … Through my engagements with him, I was able to verify that he is a qualified person. I had no reason not to believe him when he told me of his qualifications.”

Van Rooyen said he first met Bobat in 2009 and, over the years, contacted him on occasion  for help with his MSc in finance.

According to Van Rooyen, he had “a plethora of CVs” at the time he was appointed to control the nation’s purse strings. But none of them came close to “what was expected of the person to support me”.

Van Rooyen said he had to hit the ground running when he was appointed to the coveted position. “I had to prioritise some positions,” he said. Van Rooyen also appointed Ian Whitley, the then son-in-law of former ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte, as one of his advisers.

But Zondo questioned why Van Rooyen solely relied on Bobat’s word about his qualifications and did not conduct a background check to determine the businessman’s integrity. “What were you going to lose by waiting a few days, just to check these things?” 

“Ideally, chair, I would definitely have taken that route,” Van Rooyen answered. “And I didn’t take that route because I felt a lot of pressure, especially with how the financial markets reacted [to Nene’s dismissal]. So I had to think quickly … I never had reservations about his [Bobat’s] integrity. And I still don’t.”

Van Rooyen said he was aware that Bobat had worked for Regiments Capital and that there were allegations of malfeasance at the Gupta-linked financial services company. But he had no concerns about this: “Because he was not necessarily implicated in what was said in newspapers about Regiments.”

Earlier, Van Rooyen blamed white-owned media for his tarnished public image. In a statement to the commission, the former minister accused the media of colluding with white capital to sully the names of anyone associated with Zuma.

“It is interesting, chairperson, but not surprising to note that at the centre of this court of public opinion is a political narrative that is driven by a biased, white-owned media, controlled by white capital,” he said.

“This is the same white capital, if you are to remember, that acquired its control over the economic resources of our country through the cruel exploitation of the blood and sweat of black people under the evil system of apartheid.”

Watch Van Rooyen’s testimony below:

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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