23/11/2017 06:08 SAST | Updated 23/11/2017 06:09 SAST

Zuma's Watergate: 'What Did The President Know? And When Did He Know It?'

Former Eskom chairperson Zola Tsotsi blew open the innards of state capture in Parliament. The president needs to account.

Theuns Kruger - Graphics24


When the United States Senate appointed a special committee in 1973 to investigate the growing scandal around the Watergate break-in the year before, President Richard Nixon thought he could control the process.

Initially, even after a series of revelations in newspapers such as the Washington Post, he remained confident in his ability to ride out the storm and even won re-election in a landslide six months after the break-in was first reported. But when the noose started to tighten, Nixon shed close aides and advisers, including the White House chief of staff and other confidantes, in an effort to put distance between him and Watergate.

But it was the explosive testimony before the Watergate committee that eventually convinced Nixon to resign before he could be impeached. "What did the president know? And when did he know it?" was the famous question senior committee member Howard Baker asked witnesses. And boy, did they start to unload on Nixon.

Former Eskom chairperson Zola Tsotsi's testimony on Wednesday was breathtaking in its scope and shocking in its revelations of collusion. It was a chronological and clinical anatomical analysis of how state capture metastasises through the sick body politic.

Tsotsi, who was eventually forced out as chairperson, made extraordinary claims -- under oath -- about President Jacob Zuma's deep involvement in the state capture project; the role Dudu Myeni, the deposed chairperson of the SAA board, played; how nobody should believe Minister of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown's protestations; Salim Essa, the "fourth Gupta brother" and his machinations; and Tony Gupta's threats.

According to Tsotsi:

Zuma called Tsotsi to enquire whether he had been in contact with Myeni, who wanted to offer advice on Eskom.
Myeni summoned Tsotsi to the presidential residence in Durban with Zuma. When he arrived there she advised him to suspend a number of senior Eskom executives. Zuma then entered the room and joined the discussion. Tsotsi proceeded to suspend the executives.
Shortly after his appointment as chairperson of the board, Tsotsi went to Brown's home for a meeting. When he arrived, he was greeted by Essa and Gupta. Essa later gave him a list of preferred senior appointments. Brown gave him the same list.
Gupta threatened him, saying he is not "helping with anything", that he suspects Tsotsi is working with "uBaba's enemies" and that he will report him to "uBaba".
Gupta also gave him a list of preferred senior appointments. He however gave a different list to Brown, who corrected him and gave him another list of names -- exactly the same as Gupta's list.

Brown's response, shortly after she took an oath before starting her testimony, was evasive and economical. She denied consulting with "anyone" in regards to her "executive functions", saying she reports to Cabinet. Brown, later during the committee's session, denied that she knew either Essa (who she referred to as "Essop") or Gupta. HuffPost SA Editor-at-Large Ferial Haffajee pointed out on Twitter: it was "a lawyer's denial". Brown's legal representative was sitting next to her the whole time.

It is, however, Zuma's presence at the extraordinary meeting in Durban after he called Tsotsi directly that opens up a new front in the war against state capture. Just like the attempt to ensnare former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor in the Guptas' rent-seeking network in Saxonwold, Zuma also appeared out of the blue after the conversation between the enabler (Myeni) and the target (Tsotsi) started. Exactly the same happened at the Guptas' home with Mentor.

STR New / Reuters
President Richard Nixon (L), listened to by First lady Pat Nixon and daughter Tricia Nixon (R), says goodbye to family and staff in the White House East Room on August 9, 1974.

"He [Zuma] requested to know what was up for discussion, whereupon Ms Myeni repeated what she had previously stated. The president then enquired if I knew who the executives are who were to be suspended, to which I responded that I would prefer that I consult the HR rules of the company to check if there is provision for recusals, rather than suspensions, to achieve the same objective," Tsotsi testified.

What business does Myeni, who herself was busy wrecking SAA, have with intervening in Eskom's business? She has absolutely no standing to order the chairperson of Eskom to a meeting, anywhere or anytime. And even less locus standi to discuss an inquiry into the parastatal or to advise who Tsotsi is supposed to suspend.

Gallo Images
Lynne Brown, minister of public enterprises, at a previous appearance in parliament. Her attempt to deny former Eskom chairperson Zola Tsotsi's revelations were flimsy.

But even more worrying: how does she secure the presidential residence for such a meeting?

The answer of course: uBaba. uBaba is the one that used Myeni to pressure Eskom. And uBaba was the stick that Tony Gupta (who is rapidly emerging as one of the Guptas' prime movers) used to threaten Tsotsi with. In the end Essa -- who seems to be very close to Brown -- scored millions and millions of rands off Eskom contracts. Not to mention the sweet, sweet deal the Guptas' Tegeta got in providing Eskom with coal.

Nixon thought he could manipulate and control the Watergate investigation. But the Senate committee started digging and asking the right questions. In the end, Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.

The portfolio committee on public enterprises is similarly starting to dig and asking the right questions. Opposition MP's on Wednesday asked for subpoenas to be issued for everyone involved, including Zuma, Myeni, Essa and the Guptas.

They need to reprise Baker's Watergate question: "What did the president know? And when did he know it?"

It appears he knew all of it. All the time.