Treasury capture is something to fear

Pravin Gordhan’s axing as finance minister just more than six months ago was met with consternation, which was made worse by the man who replaced him.

Here was Malusi Gigaba – the man who had used his position as minister of public enterprises to lay the ground for the Gupta family to plunder Transnet, Eskom, Denel and other state-owned companies – being entrusted with running Treasury, the state’s most important ministry.

Many cried foul, arguing that the move was akin to entrusting a ravenous wolf with care of the sheep.

At the time, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema told reporters in Johannesburg that “[President Jacob] Zuma has captured Treasury, which means the Guptas have captured Treasury. He has achieved what he always wanted to achieve.”

At Gigaba’s swearing-in ceremony at the presidential guest house in Pretoria on March 31, local and foreign journalists mobbed him, demanded answers about everything from his suitability for the job to the impact his appointment would have on credit ratings.

He stunned the media with well choreographed responses. He appeared to be a man who had his job figured out.

A few days later, referring to a Save SA protest outside his office, Gigaba told his staff: “Forget all the noise outside. Do your jobs. What you see and hear will pass. Change brings with it such anxieties.”

Shortly after his appointment, rumours began swirling that Gigaba, who harbours presidential ambitions, was ready to disentangle himself from the intricate state capture network.

Many hoped he would hold off-the-record briefings with senior journalists and editors to inform them about how he would free himself from the web of Zuma’s friends, the Guptas.

One senior news executive told me this week that Gigaba’s people had arranged a meeting with him. It never took place.

Just what the doctor ordered

It is near impossible to completely capture the South African state without placing National Treasury on a leash.

This is not only because Treasury allocates each department its annual budget, but because through its public finance unit, it monitors government expenditure and reins in wayward ministers, directors-general and chief executives of state-owned entities.

Through the office of the chief procurement officer (CPO), Treasury monitors compliance with tender regulations and is able to refuse government departments permission to break the rules.

Having axed Nhlanhla Nene, Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas for their refusal to sign off on the nuclear deal (among other reasons), Zuma needed someone whose conscience had been dulled.

What better man than Gigaba?

A trusted lieutenant, and a man whose footprints – a damning report by prominent academics found – will feature prominently in the story of how the Gupta highwaymen pulled off their great South African robbery.

A desktop review of Gigaba’s six months in the Treasury reveals a terrifying picture. Cabinet’s decision to move the budget allocation process from Treasury to the presidency has nothing to do with Gigaba.

But is it just a coincidence that something which has been coming since 2015 was implemented as soon as he arrived?

When all the make believe explanations are stripped away, only one reason remains for why Zuma’s Cabinet arrived at this decision.

The reason, as one senior government executive put it, is “for anyone who wants resources for projects that cannot be motivated for in the open to use nefarious means to achieve the directing of the budget one way or the other”.

This becomes increasingly clear when we take into account the fact that the budget allocation process is handled by an interministerial committee. All ministers have an opportunity to motivate for priority projects.

If the committee influences budget allocation, why would Cabinet want it handed to a presidency with neither the technical skill nor the research capacity to do the job?

The battle for the soul of Treasury

Two weeks ago, City Press reported that Gigaba had established a parallel administration, effectively undermining Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane.

Gigaba’s spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete denied the allegations.

But as fate would have it, minutes of a meeting City Press obtained revealed that acting CPO Willie Mathebula was undertaking a sweeping restructuring of his office without Mogajane’s knowledge.

The minutes revealed that, while Mogajane was in the dark about the proposed changes, Mathebula had already met Gigaba and his deputy Sfiso Buthelezi to discuss the restructuring.

The proposed changes reveal something sinister underway at Treasury: that Mathebula, Gigaba and Buthelezi were concerned that the office of the CPO “was a dictator and not an enabler” and believed the office “did not consult” their counterparts in other departments.

More alarmingly, they discussed withdrawing the office’s governance, monitoring and compliance (GMC) unit’s powers to decide if departments’ requests for tender deviations and extensions were justified.

The refrain that Treasury is a dictator, a de facto government, or a stumbling block to development is not new. It is a common refrain we hear from Zumarite ministers such as Nomvula Mokonyane.

In February, the Sunday Times reported that Zuma himself had expressed frustration about Treasury’s processes.

Zuma and Mokonyane’s unhappiness stems from their repeated failure to get Treasury to approve the nuclear deal, estimated at R1 trillion, the R56bn Moloto rail development; and the R14bn Mzimvubu water projects.

Cabinet wants to appoint Chinese companies, without any bidding process, to finance and build the last two.

A Treasury report City Press reported on in April showed how the ministry put a stop to a government-to-government procurement agreement between Zuma’s administration and the Kremlin for a Russian company to finance and build nuclear power stations.

But without the GMC’s approval for projects to bypass legal tender processes, these megacontracts will never see the light of day.

It is for this reason that Mathebula, Gigaba and Buthelezi’s mission to hobble the GMC should set off alarms.

In the 18 months to June, the GMC halted more than 200 tenders amounting to more than R4 billion from being awarded through “deviations” – which include false emergencies and other excuses about single suppliers and continuity of service.

Treasury’s deviation reports do not attach values to numerous other requests for deviation which the GMC blocked during the same period.

They could easily amount to hundreds of millions of rands.

South Africans should not allow Gigaba and co to curtail the GMC’s powers.

One reason is that Eskom’s R1.6bn in questionable contracts with management consulting firm McKinsey and Gupta-front Trillian were awarded through deviations before the GMC was established.

Should Gigaba manage to neutralise it, it would be open season on tenders across government. This would be the final step in the capture of the state.

By Sipho Masondo for City Press. Published on News24

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