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War of words at Zondo commission: ‘Grow up Mr Gordhan, don’t be cheeky’

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan found himself accused of racism, arrogance and falsely accusing former South African Revenue Service (Sars) commissioner Tom Moyane of conspiracy to cover up his own wrongdoing as he was finally cross-examined at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture on Monday.

It was widely expected that advocate Dali Mpofu, Moyane’s counsel, would put Gordhan’s integrity and track record on trial and he did not disappoint as he tried to bait the increasingly testy minister.

“Grow up Mr Gordhan, don’t be cheeky. How does that make you feel?” he snapped at Gordhan.

The insult was borrowed from a transcript of a telephonic argument in 2017 where Gordhan lost his patience with the Sars commissioner and accused him of undermining his authority as a minister and colluding with the Hawks to bring criminal charges to oust him from cabinet.

“I take it where it comes from, Mr Mpofu,” Gordhan retorted.

“You must never again belittle African people in the way you did in this conversation. You must just not do it again, okay?” came Mpofu’s reply, not long after accusing Gordhan of suffering from a “God complex”.

This exchange came after hours of questioning in which commission chair Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo had pleaded with the advocate and the witness not to interrupt each other, and Gordhan’s counsel, advocate Michelle le Roux was prompted to object: “We now seem to be descending into a personal spat between the advocate and the witness.”

Half an hour later, Mpofu returned to the central thrust of his argument — that Gordhan and his allies in the governing ANC had fabricated a narrative of state capture without proof, whereas, in fact, they needed to take responsibility for the political undoing of the country.

“Do you take any personal responsibility for your role in the perpetuation of state capture over those years?” Mpofu asked. “To rob a bank you must capture the vault. So do you accept that [the] treasury was at the nucleus of the project … Treasury was a key component. So for more than seven or nine years you and Mr [Nhlanhla] Nene were entrusted with treasury by Mr Zuma?”

Gordhan responded that Nene, his successor in the key cabinet post, was ousted for opposing a nuclear deal that was potentially part of the state capture cycle and was in no way initiated or backed by the treasury.

Being a finance minister did not mean having full control over the decisions of the executive, he said. “If we had, many more deals could have been stopped or interrupted in the process.”

The cross-examination came a year, almost to the day, after Zondo had reluctantly agreed to it on the narrow grounds that Gordhan had testified two years ago that Moyane’s actions as Sars commissioner were motivated not only by malice, but a wish to further the state capture project.

At the start of Monday’s proceedings, Gordhan factually clarified his initial contention, in so far that he had said state capture was Moyane’s motivation for abusing legal process in 2015 when he laid criminal charges against him and others at the Brooklyn police station regarding the early retirement of former Sars deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay.

The charge sheet did not mention Gordhan in person, as the minister initially thought, but he reiterated that it culminated in the criminal fraud charges the National Prosecuting Authority brought against him in October 2016 before withdrawing these three weeks later.

His confusion stemmed from a list of 27 questions sent to him by the Hawks regarding the so-called rogue intelligence unit within Sars, which referenced the same docket number generated by the police in Pretoria the previous year.

But still, he insisted: “As I said earlier, that was one action, among many others that constituted, in my view, his contribution to the state capture process.”

Gordhan repeated at regular intervals that instead of seeking to discredit him as a minister or a committed non-racialist, Moyane should have taken the stand to testify on his actions as head of the revenue service, which hollowed out its capacity and helped to drive South Africa to the economic crisis the country faces today.

In turn, Mpofu asked over and over whether Gordhan had proof that Moyane had conspired with the Hawks to force his exit from the cabinet. Returning to the telephonic transcript, he asked on what basis Gordhan had accused Moyane of colluding with the elite police unit “every other day” to target him.

Gordhan, seemingly on the back foot, conceded that he had no firm evidence for the allegation but was speaking in a colloquial manner, based on information he had from both the Hawks and the NPA at the time.

Zondo asked whether there was anyone who could corroborate his claim. Gordhan was left to reply that if anybody came to mind, he would alert the commission.

According to Mpofu the fallout between the minister and the commissioner, on Moyane’s version, had five legs.

“It was caused by your general arrogance towards him and petty jealousies about his role at Sars. Thirdly, he says it also originated from your racism towards him and towards African people in general and, fourthly, he says it was motivated, and here we come closer to the meat, by your need to deflect from your own involvement in corruption and state capture.”

Lastly, he added, Moyane blew the whistle on “the mess you left behind at Sars”, including the rogue unit and the early retirement of Pillay.

He went on to accuse Gordhan of conveniently dissimulating meetings he had both with the Gupta family and Judge Robert Nugent, who had authored a report that described Moyane’s arrival at Sars as calamitous and absolved Gordhan of any wrongdoing relating to the intelligence unit.

And so the day’s questioning predictably turned to the intelligence unit that haunted political discourse for years. 

“What we are now doing is returning to reviving the entire rogue unit narrative,” Le Roux exclaimed, as the cross-examination went into extra time, well past 7pm.

It was disingenuous to do so when it was now history that 11 days after The Sunday Times newspaper first advanced the narrative, Moyane proceeded to the Brooklyn police, she said. Mpofu doggedly returned to the findings of the findings of the public protector and a report by advocate Muzi Sikhakhane, which have both been discredited, the latter a fortnight ago when Sars commissioner Edward Kieswetter effectively binned it.

“As far as we are concerned, Sikhahkane was wrong and has repeatedly been proven to be wrong … As far as the public protector is concerned I am not sure where we are, but that is a matter before a high court,” Gordhan retorted.

Zondo asked how he would respond if Moyane felt the unit was not lawful, and whether he would accept that this may have been a sincere approach or would say he knew that it was legitimate, but laid a complaint because he was advancing the state capture project.

Gordhan said Moyane knew, sooner rather than later, but did not exercise the option of withdrawing the complaint.

The wrangling about the unit and Moyane’s perception of the legality of it continued, with Mpofu questioning Kieswetter’s judgment, until the proceedings were adjourned until further notice shortly before 8pm.

Zondo said the cross-examination would probably be scheduled to continue during an evening session.

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