I wish I could name-drop Mcebisi Jonas because he has proven himself to be the best of us. To be honest, I only put him on my journalist's profile-to-do list after ANC deputy general-secretary Jessie Duarte told me that he was a rising star and future finance minister material.*
Jonas was previously MEC for finance in the Eastern Cape and earned a national bump to deputy finance minister after cleaning up the province's messy fiscus. At the national treasury he played workhorse to Nhlanhla Nene. The next time I heard his name was in whispers.
"It was a coup," said a treasury official, still shell-shocked after the date they call "9/12", as the person explained how they received the news of Nene's axing and the rapid appointment of Des van Rooyen. The term "9/12" is named after the American shorthand "9/11" for the attack on the World Trade Center - an indication of a calamitous event.
Van Rooyen had brought two mystery advisers with him: Mohamed Bobat and Ian Whitley, the latter being Duarte's son-in-law. Treasury staff said it was clear they were not well-acquainted with the newly appointed minister; one said they had only exchanged phone numbers with him upon their arrival. Former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel detailed in City Press the story of the mystery advisers.
For treasury officials it was common cause that the two were linked to the Gupta family, although both men denied this. The two have, however, failed to answer a standing and repeated question City Press has asked: whether they know or have met regularly with the Gupta family.
Three different sources related another claim: that the Gupta family had in November offered Jonas the top job using the first son Duduzane Zuma as an emissary. The officials said Jonas had declined which explained, they said, how Van Rooyen had been parachuted in.
The first time I met Jonas was at an editors' briefing in Pretoria with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan ahead of his budget speech. He sported a plaster and explained he was a DIY fanatic but not very good at it. I recommended Suzelle DIY's book.
Then, a meeting was scheduled as I wanted to put the persistent claims to him. I had canvassed widely and people said the firm put-down sounded like Jonas. Political colleagues described him as a humble and loyal person.
To be frank, I thought the idea of a family offering anyone a Cabinet minister's job to be so outlandish that he would laugh it off. But, no. It turned out to be true. The deputy minister, who arrived at the meeting sans protectors or flunkies, was alarmed and I think shocked at the audacity of the approach.
It revealed the chutzpah of the family who told him "the old man" wanted to make him finance minister but he had to agree to work with them. It struck me then that he was an old-style activist committed to his party and country and that his alarm sprung from what the offer indicated: that South Africa was in danger of being sold. His answer had been an instinctive "no" - a "no" now likely to go down in the annals of our history as an important one.
For the longest time, all of us who work this patch have heard the claims of how the family played fast and loose with appointments to state and parastatal positions. An associate said they joked with visitors: "You want to be a minister?" The family has vehemently denied the allegations but with three on-the-record confirmations now, there is smoke and there is fire.
Did the approach have the "old man's" sanction? "Absolutely not!" the presidency said when we asked. An official said people often used President Zuma's name in vain or in vanity.
*Duarte told me this years ago so I am not claiming it's linked.
Net closes around the Guptas
Business Leadership South Africa issued a terse statement late tonight
around the confirmation by deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas that the Gupta
family had offered him the job of finance minister.
In a statement signed by its president Saki Macozoma and chairperson
Bobby Godsell, the organisation said Jonas' statement that he was offered the
job as the political head of the Treasury "by the Gupta brothers marks a
grave threat to our country’s constitutional democracy".
"The statement requires a decisive response from President Jacob
Zuma, who alone has the prerogative to appoint both ministers and deputy
ministers. If other senior public office bearers have had similar approaches
now is the time for them to take the people of South Africa into their
confidence," the organisation said.
"Our government, the critical institutions of our democracy and
indeed the citizenry of our country must choose between being a society
governed by law or one captured and directed by private interests.” - Ferial Haffajee