/ 29 April 2022

Zuma was the Guptas’ puppet, Zondo finds

Safrica Politics Corruption Zuma
Former president Jacob Zuma. (Michele Spatari / AFP)

The firing of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in 2015 confirmed that Jacob Zuma was a puppet of the Gupta brothers, ready to do whatever they required, the fourth instalment of the Zondo report on state capture, released on Friday, has concluded.

“Mr Nene’s dismissal is another example that shows that Mr Zuma would do anything that the Guptas wanted him to do.”

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, in a chapter on attempts to subvert the treasury, said Zuma’s stated reasons for sacking Nene — that he had done a satisfactory job but the ANC’s top six had decided that he would be deployed to a post at the new Brics bank — were nonsensical.

The bank was not yet established, no such position had been advertised and even if it had been, the then president had no authority to offer it to anybody on behalf of the institution.

The first chapter of part four of the report reprised the testimony of former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas about his meeting with Rajesh Gupta at the family’s Saxonwold home, where he was allegedly offered R600-million to replace Nene and do their bidding.

Jonas told the commission that at the meeting in 2015, a Gupta brother — who the commission established to be Rajesh — told him “the old man will do anything we tell him to do”. 

Zondo said this was convincing, noting that he had already found in an earlier part of his report on state capture that Themba Maseko was removed as the head of the Government Communications and Information Systems at Zuma’s instructions because this had been the wish of the Guptas. 

“President Zuma was capable of dismissing somebody who did his or her excellently if that person was not prepared to cooperate with the Guptas. That is what he did with Mr Themba Maseko.”

The family had, moreover, said much the same to Maseko about the president when they tried to strong-arm him.

“I find that the statement that Mr Jonas said was made by the Gupta brother who met with him on October 23, 2015, was true,” Zondo said.

Other statements attributed by Jonas to Rajesh Gupta on the day, were equally credible, he went on to find. 

These included that the family was working with then public enterprises minister Lynne Brown — a premise also accepted by Zondo in an earlier part of the report when he named her as an associate of the family — and that Brian Molefe was untouchable because of his ties to the family.

“Evidence heard by the commission had revealed that, indeed, extraordinary measures were taken by president Zuma, a friend of the Guptas, minister [Malusi] Gigaba, another friend of the Guptas, minister Lynne Brown and Dr [Ben] Ngubane [as chair of the Eskom board] to accommodate Mr Brian Molefe,” he said. 

“It seems true that the Guptas were taking care of him,” he added, before detailing some of the “extraordinary things” the four, with the alleged collusion of others, did for Molefe as an illustration of how far those embroiled in the state capture scandal would bend over backwards to indulge the family.

The first was for Gigaba to appoint Molefe as head of Transnet, even though another candidate had scored higher. 

“Obviously president Zuma had given the go ahead for that.”

The second was for Browne to second Molefe to Eskom, without due process, and to ensure that he would become chief executive of the power utility. Ngubane then ensured that Molefe was given an extraordinary pension, to which he was not entitled, after he was implicated in former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s report that detailed his constant contact with Ajay Gupta — 58 phone calls in eight months — and paved the way for the inquiry into state capture.

Despite that cloud hanging over him, Zuma and the ruling party decided to send Molefe to parliament as an MP in February 2017, although he was absent from the list submitted at the last elections.

This meant, Zondo said, that the ANC allowed him to jump the queue and must have persuaded the person who was next on the list not to avail him or herself so that Molefe could secure a seat. 

Zondo recalled that evidence before the commission had confirmed that Molefe was shoehorned into parliament because Zuma planned to make him finance minister after he removed Pravin Gordhan from the post and “he nearly appointed him”.

This was prevented only by the firm objection of five of the top six officials of the ANC and, to spare Molefe from having to remain in parliament as a backbencher, a plan was made to bring him back to Eskom in spite of all that had gone before.

“In terms of that plan, the Eskom board, led by another Gupta associate, Mr Ben Ngubane, rescinded the agreement in terms of which Mr Molefe had left Eskom — namely an early retirement agreement.”

Of the party leadership’s resistance to Molefe becoming finance minister, Zondo remarked: “There might not be a lot for which the ANC leadership from 2009 to 2017 may deserve to be credited with regard to their handling of president Zuma as a member and leader of the ANC, and as president of the country and his relationship with the Guptas, corruption and state capture but for standing up to president Zuma and stopping him from appointing Mr Brian Molefe as minister of finance, they deserve credit.”

He added that “one shudders to think what would have become of the national treasury” otherwise.

Molefe then resigned his seat and returned, briefly, to Eksom as group chief executive.

“All of this without Mr Molefe having cleared his name that he had said he wanted clear when he left Eskom,” Zondo wrote. “The whole thing was like a circus. Grown men and women behaving in a bizarre way to please the Guptas!” 

Zondo asked again, as he did in the first tranche of his report in January, why the ANC leadership failed to do more to halt state capture. Turning to Molefe’s appointment at Transnet after the Guptas’ New Age newspaper predicted it would happen, he asked why the top six did not question this or his subsequent secondment to Eskom to proceed.

“What did the ANC leadership think as all these things were happening? Did they bother to ask themselves these questions? If they did not, why did they not?”

The report found that Nene and Gordhan had put up “great resistance to repeated attempts by president Zuma, Ms Dudu Myeni and others to get them to engage in wrongdoing concerning various transactions”.

Nuclear build programme 

This did not endear them to Zuma and their more pliant colleagues in the cabinet, it said, before detailing the extent to which the treasury had held the line against the government’s haste to enter into a nuclear build programme with Russia that could have cost as much as R1-trillion. 

The report notes that the then energy minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, had presented Nene with draft letters destined for the Russian government and had fretted about Zuma’s reaction when the finance minister refused to sign off on these. 

Nene testified that Zuma had told he was displeased with his refusal as it meant he did not have something to present to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a one-on-one meeting in Russia in mid-July.

Zondo said Zuma’s stated reason for firing Nene, in a move that would cost the economy at least R500-billion and cause the loss of some 148 000 jobs, fell to be rejected, 

The then president not only misled the country about the true reason for firing him, but was prepared to “falsely implicate” the top six officials of the ruling party, several of whom, including President Cyril Ramaphosa had confirmed to the commission that he had never, as he claimed, consulted them about the alleged plans to redeploy Nene to the bank.

“The reasons why president Zuma dismissed minister Nene is that he was not cooperating or working with the Guptas and he was resisting president Zuma’s and Ms Dudu Myeni’s attempts to get the national treasury to approve transactions or projects or measures that were not in the country’s interests.”

Zondo found that Zuma fired Gordhan as finance minister and Jonas as deputy finance minister in 2017 for similar reasons, although under the false pretence of an intelligence report implicating them in undermining the national interest.

“The Guptas were very determined to capture national treasury before president Zuma’s second term of office expired … There was no time to waste.”

Frustrated in their bid to have Molefe replace Gordhan, the Guptas then gave Gigaba the nod.

“The Guptas gave president Zuma another one of their friends to appoint, namely Mr Malusi Gigaba and he appointed him,” the report said. It ventured that Gigaba was not able to prove of much use to the Guptas but that this may have been different if Ramaphosa had not been elected president of the ANC at the end of 2017.

The commission rejected Duduzane Zuma’s account of the reason he took Jonas to the Gutpa residence.

And it found that the meeting that followed confirmed a pattern in the manner in which the Gupta brothers operated, in that the attempt to bribe Jonas echoed the manner in which they had sought to have a head of department in the Free State replaced with a more pliable official and an offer made to Vusi Kona when he was acting chief executive of SAA.

“They were all offered large sums of money as bribes.”

The report recommended that the National Prosecuting Authority consider prosecuting Rajesh Gupta for attempting to bribe Jonas.