South Africa’s finance minister says he was sacked by Jacob Zuma because he refused to approve a multibillion-dollar nuclear deal with Russia that could have crippled the South African economy.
Nhlanhla Nene told a judicial inquiry on Wednesday that the refusal was behind his dismissal in 2015 which triggered a sharp sell-off in South African markets.
The revelation by Mr Nene, who returned to South Africa’s treasury this year, sheds light on the single biggest scheme to divert state funds as part of alleged rampant corruption under Mr Zuma, who was forced from office this year.
“I was seen as the person standing in the way” of the deal for Russia’s Rosatom to construct power plants for more than R1tn ($69bn), Mr Nene said, after he resisted writing a letter of guarantee that the project would go ahead.
I believe that I was removed from office because of my refusal to toe the line in relation to certain projects
Mr Nene is the first cabinet minister to testify before the inquiry, which is focused on the influence allegedly wielded by the Gupta business family, who are friends of Mr Zuma, over state appointments and contracts.
“I believe that I was removed from office because of my refusal to toe the line in relation to certain projects,” Mr Nene said. “In hindsight, it seems that those projects may have benefited the Gupta family and other close associates of the president.”
In evidence that will bolster claims that Mr Zuma and Vladimir Putin personally arranged the nuclear deal between themselves, Mr Nene added that his Russian counterparts were unaware of the letter of guarantee.
There was speculation that the Guptas stood to gain from the nuclear deal because they owned a uranium deposit in South Africa as part of their mining-to-media business empire. The Guptas and Mr Zuma have denied involvement in corruption.
Cyril Ramaphosa, Mr Zuma’s successor as president, reappointed Mr Nene as finance minister this year as part of a drive to root out state corruption.
Mr Ramaphosa rose to the presidency after wining a power struggle against Mr Zuma in the ruling African National Congress. He inherited badly strained public finances.
Mr Nene said that the nuclear project’s “astronomical” costs would have had profound consequences for the state’s finances, but these had appeared to be a “secondary” consideration for Mr Zuma.
Mr Zuma “was not happy that I was not doing what I was supposed to have done a long time ago so that he could have something to present” to Mr Putin in a meeting at a summit of Brics leaders in 2015, Mr Nene said.
If Mr Nene had signed the “mere one-pager” letter, it would have been a “binding financial commitment” to Russia, he said.
Although the South African and Russian governments agreed on a framework to construct nuclear plants in 2014, the process of awarding the contract was officially open to all bidders.
Mr Nene has come under fire for meeting the Guptas at their home while the family’s influence was allegedly at its peak.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, a populist opposition party formed from an ANC breakaway, has accused Mr Nene of harbouring “dark secrets” about his relationship with the Guptas and has demanded his resignation.
Mr Nene denies any wrongdoing and described the EFF claims as baseless.