The saga of the South African finance minister continues

This Africa Confidential piece on the political fallout from Jacob Zuma’s recent dismissal of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene reads like a telenovela.  I couldn’t pick a single highlight, so here’s a large excerpt from the article.

The dismissal of Nene turned out to be the latest in a series of cabinet appointments made to circumvent resistance to the deal Zuma struck with Russia‘s President Vladimir Putin last year to build nuclear power plants in South Africa. Successive Ministers of Finance and of Energy who voiced their opposition to the deal over its enormous cost were removed from office.

The main beneficiaries of the nuclear deal would have included the controversial Gupta family – three Indian brothers who have become massive beneficiaries of Zuma’s patronage (AC Vol 56 No 12, Money worries). The Guptas influenced Zuma to appoint the previously unknown David ‘Des’ van Rooyen as Finance Minister, it is now generally accepted. Their intention was to secure uranium contracts for the nuclear plants in the same way they have for the coal and arms sector, according to the local press. Another part of the strategy was to place two Gupta allies, whom Africa Confidential is able to name as Mohamed Bobat and Ian Whitley, as advisors to Van Rooyen at the Treasury. Whitley is a former head of small and medium enterprises at the defunct African Bank. When Van Rooyen was replaced at the Treasury, the two men went with him to his new portfolio of Local Government and Traditional Affairs, and appeared with him when he was sworn in on 10 December.

Bobat and Whitley, who have associations with the Guptas and their businesses, visited the Treasury before Van Rooyen’s appointment and told officials there that they would be able to sign expenditure and other authorisations on behalf of the new minister but otherwise there would be no changes. Senior Treasury officials led by Director General Lungisa Fuzile were so appalled that they threatened to resign unless Van Rooyen’s appointment was reversed.

Then there is the strange case of Van Rooyen’s childhood friend, Gaddafi Rabotapi, who, former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel pointed out in an angry open letter to Minister Lindiwe Zulu on 20 December, had known about Van Rooyen’s appointment a full month before it was announced by Zuma. Manuel also said that said the proper procedures had not been followed in the appointment Bobat and Whitley, whom he did not name in the letter, nor had it been established that they had the requisite skills for either portfolio.

Following the firing of Nene in December, it was the business leaders acting in concert with moderates in the African National Congress who forced Zuma at political gunpoint to reverse his appointment of a stooge as finance minister and re-instate the highly-respected Pravin Gordhan. Further details have now emerged about the meetings in which Zuma fought tooth and nail not to give in. At one of them Patrice Motsepe, the billionaire benefactor of the governing party, told Zuma to be quiet and listen to the business leaders. Zuma’s former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the main rival of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in the succession stakes, expressed shock that the President could be addressed in such a way.