Former president Jacob Zuma called Pravin Gordhan, then finance minister, in 2015 to try and convince him to agree to an enormously expensive deal with airplane manufacturer Airbus because his close friend Dudu Myeni wanted it.
In his 68-page sworn statement delivered to the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture, Gordhan details a phone call he received from Zuma in which the then head of state implored his finance minister to agree to buy Airbus passenger planes instead of leasing them.
“In late December 2015, while driving on the N2 highway in Cape Town, I received a telephone call from former president Zuma enquiring whether we could do what Ms Myeni wanted with respect to the Airbus deal. I explained that we could not…It was clear to me that Ms Myeni contacted the former president and that had prompted his call to me,” Gordhan recalls.
Myeni, a very close friend of Zuma who also chaired his charitable foundation, was chairperson of SAA’s board at the time and had been at loggerheads with Nhlanhla Nene, who Zuma dismissed as finance minister shortly before the phone call to Gordhan. Nene refused – and Gordhan agreed – to enter into an agreement with Airbus which would see the embattled national carried buying a number of aircraft.
The agreement was subsequently adapted whereby SAA would lease, rather than buy, the planes. Myeni, however, wanted SAA to buy the planes, sell them and lease them back from a local company.
Zuma a main enabler
In Gordhan’s statement, Zuma emerges as an ever-present actor in the decade-long state capture project, often intervening directly and unusually in deals and projects involving the acquisition of nuclear power, PetroSA’s aborted agreement to purchase a share of Engen and the establishment of Denel Asia, a Gupta proxy company.
Gordhan says Zuma took “profound interest” in “ordinary transactional matters” and that the levels of personal interest the then president showed in certain projects could point to a pattern that could help to understand how state capture worked.
Gordhan identifies the nuclear agreement with Russia as one that Zuma “made it clear” he wanted to proceed. Zuma reiterated his position at a later meeting between him, Gordhan and officials from Treasury and the Department of Energy.
A similar pattern was followed when there was a push for PetroSA to purchase a stake in Engen held by Malaysian company Petronas. When Treasury insisted a due diligence investigation be undertaken on interested parties before it could issue a government guarantee, Zuma called Gordhan directly and enquired about the status of the project. According to Gordhan, red flags were raised because there seemed to be “a reluctance and even avoidance” to do due diligence.
Moyane, Ntlemeza, Zwane left alone
Zuma also refused to do anything to break the deadlock between him and then commissioner of SARS Tom Moyane, Gordhan says. According to him the animosity was so bad that Moyane even refused to submit requests for leave to Gordhan and that he resolutely refused to submit himself to the minister’s authority.
“The former president did nothing to intervene in the deteriorating relationship, to facilitate adjudication of the dispute or to resolve it any other less formal way. It festered for many months, with Mr Moyane writing further letters about me to the president.”
And when Gordhan was targeted by the Hawks’ commander Berning Ntlemeza, the then head of state also seemingly sat back to watch events unfold. In his statement Gordhan details his anger when he was instructed to answer 27 questions from the Hawks shortly before he was to table the 2016 Budget.
After the Hawks – whose capture under Ntlemeza “was central to state capture” – delivered the questions to Gordhan, he went to see Zuma about the issue. Zuma however seemed nonplussed “and merely flipped through the letter” and said he would ask Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa about the matter. Ntlemeza’s actions were however swiftly defended by Nhleko and David Mahlobo (then minister of state security) at a joint press conference.
Another incident detailed by Gordhan revolves around the unusual Cabinet intervention after the country’s biggest banks closed the Guptas’ accounts. Gordhan refused to take part in an investigation by a ministerial task team into the matter, which was led by known Gupta associate Mosebenzi Zwane, then Zuma’s minister of mineral resources.
In his statement Gordhan is loath to divulge details from confidential Cabinet meetings, but says it was clear that “Zwane had the full backing and support of former president Zuma in pursuing the task team’s objective of undermining and maligning the stance adopted by myself and National Treasury…”