Mcebisi Jonas. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Mcebisi Jonas. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

DEPUTY Minister Mcebisi Jonas was threatened on Wednesday by a prominent businessman as he prepared to blow the lid on the Gupta family’s role in selecting a previous finance minister.

Mr Jonas confirmed on Wednesday that he was approached by the family and offered the position before the axing of the then minister Nhlanhla Nene in December last year.

While preparing a statement, Mr Jonas received a text message saying: "Please keep your own counsel. Martyrdom is best left to Christ."

People close to Mr Jonas said he saw this as a threat, and that it was part of an attempt to prevent him from confirming his meeting with the Gupta family.

"Members of the Gupta family offered me the position of minister of finance to replace then minister Nene, I rejected this out of hand. The basis of my rejection of the offer is that it makes a mockery of our Constitution and hard-earned democracy," Mr Jonas said.

His disclosure lends credence to allegations that the family, whose members are friends of President Jacob Zuma and benefactors to his son Duduzane Zuma, are trying to "capture" the Treasury to advance their own business interests.

On Wednesday night the Guptas said suggestions that the family had offered anyone a job in government was "totally false".

"We challenge Minister Jonas to provide a full account of the supposed meeting that took place, under oath, in a court of law. Minister Jonas is attempting to cover up and divert attention away from his own relationships and practices.

"We are confident questions about his own ethical standards will be exposed," they said.

Mr Zuma has consistently defended his relationship with the Guptas and claimed that there was nothing untoward about it.

The revelation by Mr Jonas not only disproves this but places the president in an awkward position ahead of a crucial African National Congress (ANC) national executive committee (NEC) meeting this weekend.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) urged the ANC and its alliance to "protect" Mr Jonas. Second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila said: "We will assure his protection," and that Mr Jonas not be victimised.

The Treasury did not comment on the threats on Wednesday.

Mr Jonas’s statement came amid intense speculation that he would be moved from the deputy finance minister position, possibly as early as next week.

Party sources said he could be "promoted" to minister, possibly trade and industry.

He would make way for parliamentary novice Sfiso Buthelezi, who was quietly sworn in as an ANC MP early this month.

As Deputy Finance Minister, Mr Jonas oversees the Public Investment Corporation, which handles more than R1.8-trillion in assets.

The unexpected promotion of an MP has been done before — with Mosebenzi Zwane to Mineral Resources Minister.

Mr Zwane has been accused of doing the Gupta family’s bidding, including travelling with a delegation from the Gupta-owned Tegeta Exploration & Resources to meetings with Glencore in Switzerland to negotiate the family’s purchase of Glencore’s Optimum Colliery.

But Mr Jonas appears to have political support.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe welcomed his frank admission, saying this was about a business developing into an "oligarch".

"If oligarchs cannot be disciplined by the state, they discipline the state. We are going to develop into a mafia state where all what the state will be doing is to nurse interests of family businesses," he said.

Mr Mantashe said when the ANC at its January lekgotla raised the danger of state capture it was accused of embarking on a witch hunt.

The party was now "heartened" that people were bold enough to come forward and encouraged others to do the same.

But Mr Mantashe would not be drawn on whether Mr Zuma would be asked for an explanation at the NEC meeting.

The ANC’s top brass had previously met the Gupta family and asked them to explain the allegations around their influence on the government and on state-owned entities such as Eskom.

A report on this meeting is to be presented to the national executive committee.

The SACP’s Mr Mapaila was more direct about the course of action that should be followed by Mr Zuma.

"The president is answerable to both the ANC and the country. He must account on this," said Mr Mapaila. "We should be calling for the termination of his relationship with the Guptas to lay this matter to rest."

In a two-page statement Mr Jonas said he admitted to the meeting with the Guptas, based on his "conscience, political values and the best traditions of the ANC".

Mr Jonas said "state capture" should be a concern to all South Africans.

"We cannot afford to ignore the obvious impact these sentiments may have on our country and the resultant potential of undermining our moral authority," he said.

"Neither can we afford to allow the attempts to capture the state to divert us from dealing with the challenges that our country faces."

He also placed on record that there had been no discussion about the matter with ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte.

In the Jonas matter, driving the planned multibillion-rand nuclear deal and the South African Airways fleeting contract in a manner that benefited the Gupta family businesses were allegedly part of the conditions of the job.

Mr Nene’s firing caused the rand to crash through the R15/$ level and it has not yet recovered from the hammering.

Mr Nene was replaced by MP Desmond van Rooyen, who lasted a mere four days in the position before Pravin Gordhan was reappointed as Finance Minister.

Two men associated with the Gupta family accompanied Mr van Rooyen when he was sworn in as finance minister following his appointment in controversial circumstances on December 9.

One of them is Ian Whitley, the son-in-law of Ms Duarte and another one is Mohamed Bobat, believed to have worked for companies associated with the Gupta businesses.

Their role as advisers to the new minister and alleged links to the Gupta family caused anxiety among senior Treasury officials, some of whom threatened to resign.

Mr van Rooyen has not explained why he had already recruited staff, even though he has been reported as saying he was surprised by his elevation to finance minister.