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Zuma’s silence leaves state capture’s truth up to inference

Jacob Zuma’s prison stint for defying the Zondo commission is now in the past, while its report on the state capture era during his presidency is still a work in progress, a draft of history with narrative holes left by the central protagonist.

There was no hope Zuma would return to the witness stand to explain the how and why of the wholesale subversion of the state’s decision-making and the ransacking of its resources to channel R57-billion to the Gupta family. 

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Realistically, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s court application for an order to force him to testify was never so much about securing straightforward answers as being able to draw inferences in the absence of those, after having exhausted all means of obtaining the former president’s version of events.

By November last year, when Zondo summonsed Zuma, he had been implicated by 30 witnesses, among them former National Intelligence Agency head Gibson Njenje, whose affidavit speaks to the ties that first bound the then-president to the Gupta brothers, at least as a gateway to what followed. 

Njenje recounts separately relaying state security’s concerns about the reputational damage the relationship was causing, first to Ajay Gupta in Saxonwold in 2010, and then later to Zuma. Neither blinked and both, he said, referenced how the family gave Zuma’s son Duduzane, and to a lesser extent his twin sister Duduzile, a financial start in life, through Sahara Computers while he was still a “political polecat”.

In 2013, the ongoing damage was written all over the newspapers when Vega Gupta’s wedding guests landed at Waterkloof air base. Zondo has repeatedly pointed to the episode as a red-flag warning when witnesses claimed ignorance of the family’s influence. Zuma would have been pressed on Lieutenant Colonel Christine Anderson’s testimony that the breach was his “wish”.

Though relatively brief, Njenje’s evidence implicates Zuma in instances illustrating three pillars of state capture — the frustration of law enforcement, the abuse of intelligence structures to keep him securely in power and the conspiracy to skew decision-making to benefit the Gupta brothers and those who colluded with them.

He recalls an instruction in 2011 from the president, relayed by then intelligence minister Siyabonga Cwele, to halt an investigation by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) against Arthur Fraser for unlawful intelligence activities, and corroborated the testimony of his colleague Mo Shaik that Cwele shut down an intelligence plan to investigate the Guptas.

Similarly, senior Hawks investigator Kobus Roelofse testified how his investigation into Richard Mdluli was obstructed and referred to a letter in which the former crime intelligence boss begged Zuma for help.

The commission was seeking Zuma’s response to these allegations, before his recalcitrance resulted in a contempt sentence which Fraser, the national commissioner of correctional services, symbiotically interrupted by granting him medical parole.

Njenje testified that back in 2011 Zuma allowed Ajay Gupta to borrow his office at Mahlamba Ndlopfu to meet with then mining minister Susan Shabangu and demand she expedite an application for mining rights, as his family vied for control of Imperial Crown Mining (ICM) and the Sishen iron ore mine.

“I think, chair, it was a manner of showing how powerful they are. Showing to a minister of government that she can be called into the president’s study in the absence of the president,” Njenje told the Zondo commission.

There is no reporting line to the president on mining licences, but Duduzane Zuma was involved in the Guptas’ efforts to gain 90% of ICM. Likewise it is not the president’s prerogative to direct appointments at parastatals, but allegations that Jacob Zuma did so run like a leitmotif through the inquiry.

Former public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan testified that Zuma “would assume authority he did not have” to meddle at state firms Eskom and Transnet, notably insisting that Siyabonga Gama return to the latter after he was fired as the head of its freight rail division. In his own testimony, Gama could not explain how he managed the stunning reversal, which involved the utility refunding him R17-million in legal fees incurred when he fought a misconduct ruling and lost.

On Hogan’s version, Zuma “hung me out to dry” as she resisted Gama’s reinstatement. 

It went ahead in 2011, after Malusi Gigaba replaced Hogan as minister of public enterprises and submitted a list of new Transnet board members to cabinet. 

Hogan said Zuma had in fact been adamant that Gama should become chief executive of Transnet, which would eventually happen in 2016.

At Eskom, she said, he went further to overrule the board and tell Jacob Maroga he could return as chief executive, disregarding her warnings that it would not solve the crisis at the power utility. 

Confronted with Hogan’s evidence when he appeared before the commission in July 2019, Zuma claimed that he could not remember the finer details of their interaction around the appointment of senior executives at Transnet and Eskom. However, he denied that he insisted on Gama’s appointment, claiming: “I would not have said this. Not at all.”

Similarly, in November that year, Zuma claimed he could not remember calling Government Communication and Information System head Themba Maseko and ordering him to a meeting with Ajay Gupta where he was met with a demand to allocate the government’s full R600-million advertising budget to the New Age newspaper. 

Nor could he recall telling Maseko “Please help him”, or how it came about that Maseko was sidelined after he refused. Maseko surmised that Gupta instructed the president to call him, in the same manner he sequestered the presidential office to intimidate a minister.

The commission never heard Zuma respond directly to allegations by former Prasa chairperson Popo Molefe that at a meeting on 15 August 2015 the president pushed hard for the board of the passenger rail agency to reverse its acceptance of Lucky Montana’s resignation.

“The head of state, the president, was now attempting directly to interfere with matters of the board of directors of Prasa,” Molefe testified.

In March that year, a meeting on Eskom took place at Zuma’s home in Durban. It was hosted by his confidante Dudu Myeni and preceded the secondment of Brian Molefe to the power utility.

The commission heard different versions of what happened that day. 

According to then Eskom chairman Zola Tsotsi, it was Myeni who proposed an inquiry into Eskom’s failures, coupled with the suspension of its top executives. Zuma joined later, and asked: “What are we talking about today?”

Listening to Tsotsi’s testimony, Zondo was struck by Zuma’s odd introduction and wondered whether he, or someone else, had instigated the meeting. Tsotsi suggested that again the president was doing the Guptas’s bidding, saying  “We haven’t heard from the original architects, in my view.”

There was more cause to confront Zuma about the meeting after the testimony in January of former acting public enterprises director general Matsietsi Mokholo

She told the commission that he had personally called her and instructed her to inform Tsotsi that a board meeting scheduled for 26 February of 2015 be postponed until Lynne Brown, who then held the public enterprises portfolio, returned from abroad.

She said she told a recalcitrant Tsotsi: “‘Chairperson, this is very difficult, the president has requested that the meeting be postponed.”

When the board later met, with Brown in attendance, four executives were suspended, paving the way for Molefe’s secondment as chief executive, followed in mid-July by that of Anoj Singh as chief financial officer. By then the pair had enabled a deal to purchase 1 064 locomotives that earned the Guptas R9-billion in kickbacks.

Within six months of arriving at Eskom, Singh signed off on a R659-million prepayment to Tegeta, where Duduzane Zuma held a 28.5% interest, allowing it to buy the Optimum Coal Mine. 

It begs more questions about Zuma’s role and motives when Tsotsi was summoned to Durban. Myeni memorably refused to answer questions for fear of incriminating herself. Zuma was left little space to do so by the terms of the Constitutional Court order in January ordering him to testify.

And when it came to the appointment of malleable ministers, he had no room to claim that he was at a remove. The commission would have questioned Zuma about the reasons for the revolving door at the finance and public enterprises portfolios, as well as the considerable evidence that the Gupta family dictated the appointments or were at the least informed in advance.

The Guptas’s offer to Mcebisi Jonas of the finance minister job plus R600-million, at a meeting arranged by Duduzane in October 2015, seems a knowing precursor to the presidential sacking of Nhlanhla Nene.

In August, when he testified at the inquiry, Cyril Ramaphosa described Zuma’s decision to replace Nene with Des van Rooyen as a sinister manoeuvre to place the treasury in the hands of a parallel state.

Van Rooyen’s appointment saw Mohamed Bobat brought in as a ministerial advisor. He worked for Trillian, which was co-founded by Eric Wood and Salim Essa, memorably described by evidence leader Anton Myburgh as the Guptas’ “money-laundering lieutenant”.

Though the minister’s term lasted just four days, the commission heard testimony that a confidential document about state expenditure and state-owned enterprises ended up with Wood, via Bobat, who later helped Trillian draft advisory proposals to the department of cooperative governance.

As the rand tumbled, Zuma was pressed into returning Pravin Gordhan to the finance portfolio. But in 2017, with Gigaba having replaced Gordhan as finance minister, the president again appeared to reach for control of the state coffers by naming a presidential fiscal committee to oversee budget prioritisation. If and how the committee intervened on allocations is among the questions Zuma has evaded. 

The real reasons why Nene and Gordhan were removed will remain educated guesswork. 

So will Zuma’s drive for a new nuclear power plant, staunchly resisted by both those ministers, and supported by Brian Molefe. The same applies to the sacking of Hogan and the serial appointment of Gigaba to portfolios beyond his capability while, on his estranged wife’s evidence, he counted Ajay Gupta as his unofficial advisor. 

Another question mark hangs over Zuma’s decision to replace Ngoako Ramatlhodi with Mosebenzi Zwane at mineral resources, and why the latter was named to head a ministerial inquiry into the decision by major banks to close the Guptas’s bank accounts.

But the evidence against Zuma extends beyond the dealings of, and the debt he owed, one family, suggesting a shadowy propensity that attracted willing partners wherever. 

There was Angelo Agrizzi’s testimony that Zuma received R300 000 a month from Bosasa, via Myeni, and met with Gavin Watson at Nkandla to discuss facilitating a fracking concession for Falcon Oil in the Northern Cape. 

Early this year, the commission heard from acting director general of state security Loyiso Jafta that the excesses of the intelligence community extended to paying the president a monthly stipend and attempting to bribe judges to make his legal woes go away.

Beyond that still is the testimony of former Bain & Company consultant Atholl Williams, that the company’s managing partner for South Africa, Vittorio Massone, had met Zuma some 20 times between 2012 and 2016. Bain scripted the ruinous restructuring of the South African Revenue Service under Tom Moyane, but did Massone and Zuma mull, as Williams has alleged, a presidential delivery council to reconfigure sectors of the economy and to what end?

The list above is non-exhaustive and even hypothetical. The commission’s probe extended beyond hearings to its own investigations, which would have informed the line of inquiry of its evidence leaders could Zuma have been coerced into accounting for his nine years in office. 

In August, Myburgh asked Ramaphosa of the brazen scheming in Saxonwold: “How is it possible this happened in the light of day”? 

The president’s premise was that as baffling as it may be, much of it did go undetected, but the corruption could have been worse without the resistance of some, including himself, within the state. 

It offers cold comfort but the wrangling around the treasury and a nuclear power deal as well as Zuma’s interaction with Bain leaves room to wonder what was still planned with his knowledge and where the vandalism of the state would have ended had the political tide not turned against him.

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